A common saying in politics is that young people don’t vote. This isn’t entirely true, but it’s also not entirely false.
After ratification of the 26th Amendment in 1971, which lowered the voting age to 18, turnout in this country dropped from 60.7 percent in 1968 to 55.1 percent in 1972. In subsequent years the percentage of Americans who cast a ballot has fluctuated but never reached pre-26th Amendment levels.
We expanded the franchise to include a group that was least likely to exercise their voting rights, and they dragged our voting averages down. Young people have remained the least likely age group to turn up on Election Day.
In 2008, we saw an uptick in youth political participation when President Barack Obama’s campaign helped draw young voters out of hiding.
Unfortunately these newly engaged voters only stay involved somewhat. Subsequent elections have shown slightly higher levels of youth involvement, but not on a par with the initial 2008 election. Now that we’re facing post-Obama politics, we should all fear young people won’t show up to vote.
There are multiple reasons for concern. Young people greatly preferred Bernie Sanders in this year’s Democratic Party primary. Exit polls suggest that Sanders won more votes from people under 30 than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined.
According Trump’s poll numbers, he might set a new low for Republican candidates among young voters.
In the months since the primaries it seems that neither major party candidate has connected with young voters at Sanders- or Obama-like levels. Perhaps most concerning is the 2016 presidential candidates have failed to energize the masses of politically uninterested young people who don’t have good voting habits to fall back on.
Is it possible that young people are engaged in this election, despite their disenchantment with the major party candidates? Maybe. This election has seen record-breaking increases in voter registration, which is a hopeful sign.
In 2012, 12,320 early voting ballots were cast at the voting center on The University of Texas at Austin’s campus. As of Oct. 21, 2016, halfway through early voting, 10,663 voters have cast ballots on campus.
But despite these promising signs, young people will by and large sit out this election. Why? Young voters face substantial barriers to voting — such as working while in school to minimize student loan debt.
They are less likely to identify with a political party, which serves as an effective decision shortcut for many of us. Many haven’t had a chance to vote before, so they haven’t had a chance to develop a voting habit.
And, they tend to be more mobile and less likely to have roots in a community. Roots are helpful for understanding the issues and simply knowing the locations of polling places. And, to be fair, this campaign season has been a rather pitiful advertisement for the promise of getting involved in politics.
Given this sad state of affairs, young people are caught in a catch-22.
Candidates don’t tend to campaign on issues that matter to them. Maybe young people would vote more if campaigns were more relevant to them; maybe campaigns would address issues that are important to young people if they voted. Young people care about issues like job opportunities, student loans, affordable health care and the environment.
According to survey data, they are much more concerned about the ways LGBT people as well as racial minorities are treated in this country. Ideally, political candidates would recognize how close Bernie Sanders came to winning the nomination because of young voters and start paying more attention to them.
Rather than wait for the next popular candidate to come along, young people must re-establish themselves as a political force by showing up on Election Day. The expansion of the franchise was the right thing for our country to do, but it’s not enough for the rest of us to just hope young people take it upon themselves to vote.
We should talk about why voting matters and why we value their voices in politics. If the tone of the 2016 election is any indication, older generations could desperately use their help.
Bethany Albertson is an associate professor of government at The University of Texas at Austin. George Elliott Morris is an undergraduate student at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle, Fort Worth Star Telegram, McAllen Monitor, Austin American Statesman and the Waco Tribune Herald.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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