Why Young People Don’t Vote

Wealthy Americans vote at nearly twice the rate of poor Americans, and young, poor voters of color are even less likely to vote. Why is this?

In 2016, only 58% of the voting-eligible population cast a ballot in the presidential election. Young Americans, especially poor, young Americans of color, are much less likely to vote. Many other countries have higher voter turnout than the U.S., and our comparatively low election participation rate has long been a topic of discussion. Traditionally, those who don’t vote are blamed for their inaction. Shifting responsibility from a system designed to fail to the victims of that system is a very American thing to do; blaming individuals for societal issues is perhaps the greatest American pastime.

The apolitical behavior of the young, poor, and persons of color requires no explanation. It is no far stretch for wealthy white Americans, who face few or no barriers to exercise their right to vote, to suspect that persons of color, the poor, and young simply aren’t voting due to laziness. Beliefs of genetic and moral superiority have been deeply rooted in the white American psyche for centuries. It is easy to believe that wealth and privilege are a direct result of hard work and personal determination. Why should the system be abolished if it works fine for me?

What about other countries?

Once we escape our American bubble, it becomes clear that the system, not the individual, is flawed. If young people aren’t voting because of some generational laziness, we would expect all other countries to experience the same problem, but that isn’t the case. In Sweden, where voter turnout has not been below 80% since the 1950s, turnout is equally high among younger people. Are younger people in Sweden just superior to the young people we have in the United States? Or could larger, societal factors play a role in voter turnout?

Schools in Sweden prepare students to vote by teaching them about different political parties, what they stand for, and how the country’s democratic system works. They are not bound to a two-party system, either; eight different political parties have seats in Swedish parliament, and the largest party, the Social Democrats, only hold 28.3% of the seats. Meanwhile in the land of the free, if you even consider voting for someone without a (D) or (R) next to their name, your friends and family will be sure to let you know how terrible of a person you are for throwing your vote away. Not inconsequential to voter turnout is Sweden’s belief that the role of the media is to scrutinize the government and parliament; they came in at #4 in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, and the U.S. sits at #45. 

Why don’t Americans vote?

Households with income greater than $100,000 vote at nearly twice the rate of households making less than $30,000 per year. In presidential elections, around 80% of wealthy Americans vote, while between 40% to 50% of poor Americans make it to the polls. In midterm elections, the spread is similar; around 60% of households making over $100,000 vote while less than 30% of those making less than $30,000 cast ballots.

Fortunately for us, we don’t have to guess why people aren’t voting; they tell us. The most common reason given for not voting is a lack of choice, which is understandable. However, the majority of voters who stay home because they don’t like their choices are 61 or older and white. Young voters and voters of color don’t participate due to factors out of their control. Hispanic and Black voters are much more likely to have transportation issues than white voters, and have issues with ID or voter registration nearly 3x more often than white voters. Black and Hispanic voters experience longer lines at the polls at twice the rate white voters do.

Before you blame young voters for their laziness, remember that 18- to 30-year-olds are the least likely to say they didn’t vote because they didn’t like their options. That’s right - young people are sucking it up and voting for the best candidate on the ballot, even if they don’t like them. Maybe that’s why the majority of our presidential candidates are retirement age; it’s older Americans that refuse to vote for someone they don’t like, not younger people. Why are young Americans not voting, then? Over 30% of Americans age 18 to 30 said they didn’t vote due to a transportation or location issue, while less than 5% of older Americans experienced the same difficulties. Nearly 25% of young people that didn’t vote had an ID or registration issue, and less than 5% of older Americans had that problem. 

Personal responsibility

I believe everyone that has the right to vote should do everything within their power to exercise that right, but understand that voting is easier for some of us than it is for others. In my state, Tennessee, absentee voting is not available to everyone, even in the middle of a pandemic. (If you live in Tennessee or another state like mine, you may want to consider joining the Church of Universal Suffrage; they observe all U.S. voting days as religious holidays, and your observance of these holy days may allow you to request an absentee ballot.) Voting isn’t easy for me, and I am white, don’t have any children, own a car, and a valid photo ID. I can only imagine how difficult it is for people who don’t have the same privileges I do.

64 million Americans in 13 states do not have the option to vote early and must have a valid excuse for requesting an absentee ballot. Even if you can get your hands on a mail-in ballot, Donald Trump is working hard to make sure your ballot won’t get delivered. Millions of Americans experience voter intimidation every election cycle. 21 million do not have a government-issued photo ID. In states with strict voter ID laws, unsurprisingly, Americans of color are much less likely to vote. 1 in every 13 Black Americans has been stripped of their right to vote due to felony disenfranchisement laws.

Instead of blaming young people, poor people, or persons of color for not voting, direct that energy towards making voting as easy for everyone else as it is for you. Older, wealthy, white Americans have greater access to the polls than any other group; if you don’t believe me, just look at the demographics of Congress and the presidency. If we amend our system to encourage political participation among the least of us rather than discourage it, you may suddenly find millions of Americans to be a lot less “lazy” than you thought they were.

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