What is the “Youth Vote”?


The “youth vote” is conventionally defined as citizens within the age group of 18 to 24. The 1970 case, Oregon v. Mitchell, gave Congress the power to determine the minimum voter age in federal elections, but not on state and local levels. Amid increasing support for a Constitutional amendment, in 1972 Congress passed the 26th Amendment, which lowered the minimum voter age from 21 to 18 for all elections. After the states promptly ratified the amendment, President Nixon signed it into law. Supporters of lowering the age argued the hypocrisy that while the youth were being drafted for war, they were simultaneously unable to exercise their political vote.

Today in half of the states in the US, 17 year olds can vote in primaries, but only those who will turn 18 before a forthcoming general election (“17-year-old” 2014). Consequently, a sizeable amount of citizens who have the right to vote in a November general election do not have a voice in deciding who will be on that general election’s ballot. Lowering the voting age to 17 in all states will empower young people to become more political engaged. Peter Levine from Politico argues that lowering the voting age to 17 would help our democracy, as high school classrooms can become more involved sources of political knowledge and reflection. Moreover, overall voter turnout would increase in the long term, which would help change the US’ current lack of turnout as compared to other democracies, such as Australia, Belgium, Germany, France and Canada (“Statistics”). Finally, the ability for 17 year olds to affect change on local issues that impact them would shift policies and institutions towards the better for the youth (Levine 2015). Policy makers on all levels would be less likely to engage in paternalism when determining policies, since young people could voice their opinions and perspectives through voting. A critique of lowering the voting age to 17 is that since many of these voters are still living with their parents, they are more likely to simply mimic their parents’ vote, as they may not have formed their own authentic opinions about politics yet.

“Statistics by Country.” Accurate Democracy. Accurate Democracy., 2013. Web. 20 July 2015.

Levine, Peter. “Why the Voting Age Should Be 17.” POLITICO Magazine. POLITICO, 24 Feb. 2015. Web. 20 July 2015.

“17-year-old Primary Voting.” FairVote. FairVote, 2014. Web. 20 July 2015.

Why Youth Voting Is So Important

The youth make up 21 percent of the eligible voting population in the US (civic.youth.org) and have the power to influence elections through 46 million votes. In fact, in the last election at least 80 electoral votes depended on youth voters (“At Least 80”).

In order for a functioning democracy to create a politically conscious class of citizens, it is important for the youth to exercise their right to vote. More than the power of their sheer numbers, voting at an early age encourages young people learn about their political system, the voting process and political engagement. Voting is a tool of civic engagement that is fundamental to a democracy, as it promotes involvement in shaping public policies, while creating opportunities for accountability. If our youth engages in the voting process, it holds politicians’ “feet to the fire” on issues that matter to the younger generation of citizens.

Moreover, civic engagement is especially valuable for young people as it helps shape their attitudes and behaviors towards politics and political processes during a vulnerable and influential time in their lives. Voting at an early age solidifies the chances of participatory voting habits later in life (Flanagan 2009). Subsequently, studies have shown that those who do not vote in their youth often maintain a life of civic exclusion. Additionally, if young people do not vote, it is probable that their children will neither vote nor be otherwise civically engaged. The concept of self-efficacy is defined as “the confidence in one’s ability to control and execute behaviors that are required to address current and future situations.” Civic engagement is crucial in the development of young people’s self-efficacy; therefore when any voter lacks this form of confidence, voter turnout is lower. One reason researchers cite as to why youth voter turnout is historically low is because young voters believe that their vote will not contribute to real change.

“At Least 80 Electoral Votes Depended on Youth.” Civic Youth. CIRCLE, 7 Nov. 2012. Web. 20 July 2015.

Flanagan, C., Levine, P., & Settersten, R. (2009). Civic engagement and the changing transition to adulthood. Tufts University Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Kawashima-Ginsberg, K. (2011). Understanding a diverse generation: Youth civic engagement in the United States. Tufts University Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Disparities within the Youth Vote

CIRCLE’s research uncovered several factors that spotlight why young people vote in such low rates. A poll conduced after the 2010 midterm election reported that the number one reason a youth voter did not participate was “too busy, conflicting work” at 33.5%, trailed by “not interested, felt my vote would not count” at 17.2%. Young people often work in entry-level jobs that have less flexibility to miss any time at work on Election Day. This study also brings up the idea of political alienation, as many youth feel that politicians do not speak to them or engage in the issues that they care about.

In order to explore a comprehensive examination of the youth vote and its disparities within the different demographics of young people, one must examine political participation and civic engagement that produces youth voting. Disparities occur within youth voting between different educational backgrounds, classes, races, and genders. In the 2012 presidential election, 66% of the youth with any college experience voted, while only 35% of youth with no college experience voted (“That’s Not Democracy”). Research shows a strong correlation between political engagement and college experience, as National Survey Data shows 37% of non-college youth feel “completely disconnected from civic engagement” (“That’s Not Democracy). Young people were more likely to vote as their education level increased. Those without a college background are less likely to view their vote as meaningful, according to CIRCLE’s study, which is partly a result of less interaction with civic institutions. As the length of adolescence has been expanded from 10-17 to 18 or 21, some researchers suggest that college has become the key institution for civically engaging young people (Fish 2014). Those who do not attend college have civically engaged with church groups, unions, and social movements; however these levels of participation have decreased. Those studying the topic of civic engagement for low-income and non-collegiate youth propose that the military, and programs such as AmeriCorp, may be most successful in connecting youth into civic institutions (Flanagan and Levine 2009). Moreover, the class divide, which deeply influences educational attainment, matters when analyzing disparities within the youth vote. Access to civic institutions is a driving factor in the level of engagement and subsequent voter turnout.

The racial component of the youth vote reveals a historically white-dominated turnout with only recently a higher black youth rate than white. While it is widespread consensus that President Barack Obama helped galvanize black youth, the data shows that their rise pre-dates his candidacies. After Black and White youth, the asian youth population has a lower turnout rate than Hispanics, but still higher than Native American youth.

One looming issue over young people of color is the criminal justice system, which grossly and disproportionally imprisons Black and Hispanic young people. While only making up 30%, they account for 60% of those incarcerated, leading to disenfranchisement and therefore lower turnout rates (Kerby 2012).

According to the US Census, since the 1970s women have always voted at higher rates than men. While this is not particularly distinct for the youth, it is important to note since women in the oldest age bracket do not vote higher than men. Since the 1972 election, young women have consistently voted at a higher rate than young men. However, among young women of different ethnic groups, turnout differs. In 2012, 60.1% of young Black women voted, compared to 48.7% of young White women, 40% of Asian American women and 39.9% of Latinas. In both 2008 and 2012, young black and Latina women were Obama’s highest supporters as Young white women have consistently been the most influential force for the youth demographic, but their influence is decreasing as young Hispanic women’s influence is increasing (“Young Women”).

There were differences in the youth vote by gender and marital status. In 2012, young women who were single voted more than young single men, as well as married young women voting at higher rates than young married men (“Young Women”).

Flanagan, C., Levine, P., & Settersten, R. (2009). “Civic engagement and the changing transition to adulthood.” Tufts University Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Fish, Jefferson. “What to Do About Adolescence?” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 14 Jan. 2014. Web. 20 July 2015.

Kirby, E. H., & Kawashima-Ginsberg, K. (2009). “The Youth Vote in 2008.” Tufts University Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Kerby, Sophia. “The Top 10 Most Startling Facts About People of Color and Criminal Justice in the United States.” Center For American Progress. Center For American Progress, 13 Mar. 2012. Web. 20 July 2015.

“Trends by Race, Ethnicity, and Gender.” Civic Youth. CIRCLE, 11 Dec. 2014. Web. 21 July 2015.

“‘That’s Not Democracy.’ How Out-of-School Youth Engage in Civic Life and What Stands in Their Way.” Civic Youth, CIRCLE, 2010. Web. 28 July 2015

“Young Women Drive Youth Turnout.” Civic Youth. CIRCLE, 2013. Web. 20 July 2015.