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The Youth Vote: A Matter of Access, Not Apathy

The biggest obstacle to young voters is not apathy, but removing barriers that complicate the process for new voters.
 
 
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I've spent a lot of time here in the past two months busting myths about young voters. I've talked about rising youth turnout and the boom in youth infrastructure. I've talked about the proper use of celebrities in GOTV campaigns, and the roles of Obama and online tools in mobilizing youth. In all instances, my purpose was to highlight the incredible gains we've made since 2003 in engaging young voters. This election stands to be the first time since 18 year olds were granted the right to vote that youth turnout at the polls will increase for the third straight campaign cycle. We are now at the point in which the youth vote is increasingly competitive with, and at times surpasses, the over 65 vote. That's a good thing.

In response to my posts, I've seen comments expounding on the problem of "youth apathy" and claims that youth won't vote unless we reinstate the draft. Others threw their hands up in helplessness, stating that the youth vote will only turn out for charismatic candidates and so there's not much we can do to boost turnout. The implication is that current trends are nothing more than a statistical blip.

So here's the bad. I concede to these commenters that young voters still turn out (generally speaking) in fewer numbers than other segments of the electorate. However, this has nothing to do with voter apathy, the draft, candidate charisma, or any other reason that is part of the conventional wisdom about youth participation. Young voters participate at lower rates because the system is rigged to make it is hard as possible to participate.

Young voters face more barriers to participating in the political process than any other demographic in the electorate except perhaps ex-felons. Some of these factors are structural and can be attributed to lifestyle issues. Others are deliberate attempts to keep young voters from the polls. Here's a look at how our voting system disenfranchises our youngest citizens:

Photo ID:

Increasingly states are adopting stringent voter ID laws that require voters to show government issued photo ID. Often young people -- particularly students who attend school out of state -- do not have such drivers licenses or other valid ID from the state in which they attend school. Many other young voters in urban areas have no need of a car and don't bother to get a drivers license, the most common form of ID. A poll by Rock the Vote found that 19% of students lacked such proper ID. Absentee ballots are not the solution to this problem either. Many states require valid photo ID for first-time absentee voters. Again, students who want to vote absentee in their home state are often already at school and unable to provide ID at a polling place or at a board of elections office located hundreds of miles away.

"Residency" Requirements:

As noted by the Brennan Center, many local boards of elections attempt to disenfranchise the students residing in their jurisdiction by claiming that a dorm is not a legal residence. This has led to a common misconception among youth and other administrators that young voters cannot vote in the places where they go to school, despite Court rulings stating otherwise. Most recently this became an issue in the Iowa Caucus, where columnist David Yepsen and some Democratic campaigns disputed the rights of students to participate.

Deadlines/Timing:

Voter registration deadlines often fall in September or early October, right at the beginning of the school year. This is the busiest time of the year for many young people, who are acclimating to a new environment, and colleges and universities do very little to encourage student voter registration.

Poll Access:

Students often lack convenient access to polling locations. In Ohio in 2004, students faced lines of up to 12 hours due to a lack of voting machines on or near campus. Some of those voters waited in line only to discover that their registration had been purged from the voter rolls. In 2006 at Prairie View A&M in Texas, students had to walk 7 miles to the nearest polling place to cast their ballot.

Transience:

Students and young people are far more mobile than older voters. Many move to new residences from year to year, requiring that they register anew after each move.

Lack of Attention:

On the whole, young people have received far less attention from political campaigns and parties. For decades it was literally the policy of most campaigns to cut anyone under 30 off of their "walk lists." We know that in person, peer-to-peer contact is the most effective way to drive someone to the polls. Absent that attention from candidates and campaigns -- attention which is showered on voters the older they get -- it's no wonder that fewer and fewer young people make it to the polls.

Fewer Opportunities Overall:

This is sort of the no-brainer of the group, but young people have had fewer chances to register to vote than have older voters. This is a situation not likely to change unless some form of compulsory, or automated, voter registration is enacted at the national level.

Contrast all this to the situation of an older voter. Older voters have had many more opportunities to register. They are generally stationary, having put down roots in a community and thus do not need to change their registration. They have conveniently located polling places with short wait times. Their residency or eligibility is rarely challenged, and campaigns spend tens to hundreds of millions of dollars each cycle to reach out and encourage older voters to go to the polls. Is it any wonder that youth turnout lags behind?

Look at this problem from a marketing perspective. If you were Nike and you were selling a sneaker, you would do whatever it took to get your product in front of your target audience, get them into the store, and buy your product. You wouldn't ignore your target market and then whine about the fact that no one was buying your shoes. The same is true for young people and voting. If we want them to get to the polls, we have to put our resources behind efforts to register them, and we have to make our product (voting/democracy) readily and easily available to them.

Luckily, there are a number of groups working on this, as well as some proven fixes to this broken system. Matthew Segal was one of those Ohio students waiting in line in November of 2004. Out of that experience came the voter protection organization S.A.V.E. (Student Association for Voter Empowerment). The group works to protect student voting rights on campuses, and recently had a huge success. Last night, in partnership with SAVE, Sen. Durbin and Reps. Shakowsky and LaTourette introduced the Student Voter Bill of 2008. Expanding on the Motor Voter Bill, which required the DMV and public assistance agencies to offer voter registration along with their services, the bill will require state colleges and universities to offer voter registration to their students.

Longterm, the most obvious structural solution is Election Day Registration, or EDR. EDR allows anyone to show up and register to vote on the day of an election. States with EDR consistently show higher rates of participation among all demographics of the electorate, but the increase in turnout is most significant among young voters. Studies show that EDR can boost youth turnout up to 14% (pdf), in many cases bringing youth turnout closely in line with the average turnout.

Youth voting -- or the lack of it -- is not about apathy, it's about access. Young voters lack it, older voters have it. If we want to bring more young people into the democratic process, it's time we stop yelling at them and start creating structures to engage them.

 
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