Vote for a healthy democracy

Eric Loepp, Contributor

Young voters often get a bad rap in American politics. Some political pundits roll their eyes when a candidate talks about reaching out to young voters: “Yeah, like they’ll show up.” Other observers may joke that “young voter” is a contradiction in terms. 

photo courtesy of Eric Loepp

But it’s no laughing matter. When young people do not (or cannot) participate, it can significantly alter the course of elections and, ultimately, the course of the country. That may sound hyperbolic, but think about: if you are a politician trying to win an election, you will focus your attention mostly on the issues that people who show up to vote care about, right? After all, you need their votes, so you should speak to their policy concerns. If everyone of all ages cared equally about all the same issues, this may not be as big of a deal. But the truth is younger citizens and older citizens often have different policy preferences. For example, a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 28 percent of young people (ages 18-29) think immigration should be a top priority for the president and Congress to address. That number was 58 percent among people ages 50 to 64 and 67 percent among people 65 or older. Similar patterns emerge on issues like defense spending. 10 percent of young voters rate “strengthening the military” as a top priority this year, far less than the over 50 percent of older voters who agree. Older Americans also rate “securing Social Security” as a high priority (70-plus percent) much more than younger voters (40 percent). On the other hand, younger voters are understandably more concerned than older voters about issues that may have longer-term implications, like “dealing with climate change.” Still, it can be tempting to say your vote doesn’t matter when it is only one of millions of others. And, sure, any one vote probably won’t change an election outcome. But when entire generations of Americans are more or less likely to vote, it influences the issues on which politicians spend their time and energy. Elected officials are responsive to people that show up. Given all this, why don’t young people vote more? Are the cynics correct that young people just can’t be bothered? Is it that younger Americans have less trust in government? Sure, there may be some of this, perhaps. For instance, research shows that younger Americans as a whole do, in fact, have lower levels of faith in the political system than many older Americans. But here’s the thing: recent research into voting also found that younger people were not any more likely than older people to stay home on Election Day because they thought the system was broken or because they didn’t believe in voting. Instead, younger people were more likely to stay home because they encountered more barriers to participating, such as not being able to locate their polling place and not being able to get time off work to vote. A 2020 election survey found that almost one quarter of young people reported wanting to cast a ballot but were unable to do so. It is understandable that doing something for the first time is often more difficult than doing it again in the future. Think about registering for courses. In the fall of your first-year, there is a lot to learn about picking courses for your second semester. You have to think about majors and minors, general education requirements, and advising recommendations, just to name a few. After that first time, though, it gets easier. You learn the system, the rules, and the procedures. Same goes with voting. There’s a lot to do the first time, especially if you are a college student who is not only new at this, but also having to make decisions about things like voting on campus or voting in your hometown. This is all in addition to having to learn about the political system itself, evaluating your candidate options, and weighing the pros and cons of supporting different people and parties. Voting takes effort. No doubt. But the payoffs are well worth it. Voting gives you a say in who gets to craft the policies that affect your life, from how much you pay in taxes to whether the United States goes to war. Young people need to learn the ropes when they get started, just like anything else in life. Once you do, though, participation in the future will hopefully grow easier over time, and you can pay it forward by helping future voters get up to speed themselves. And that there may be the ultimate hallmark of a healthy democracy. – Associate Professor of Politics, Government & Law Eric Loepp