Why Don’t Young People Vote? This System Doesn’t Want Them To.

Don’t lament young people’s apathy, consider what’s making them apathetic.

Several "I Voted" stickers.
Photo illustration by Slate

To vote in the United States, you can’t simply go cast a ballot. In most states, you first have to register. If you’ve registered, you have to have state-issued identification to then actually vote. If you don’t have identification, you might have to pay a fee to obtain it. If you don’t live in an early voting state—or one with flexible absentee rules—you have to take time from work to cast your ballot. If you live in states like Georgia or Florida, you may have to wait for hours before you can step into a voting booth. If you can’t drive or aren’t mobile, you may have to find a ride.

If you’re middle-aged with a stable job and a fixed-address, this is straightforward. If you’re anyone else, it’s less so. And if your life is defined by instability—in location, in housing, in employment—any single obstacle might be enough to discourage you from voting altogether. That might be why turnout for the youngest voters in the electorate is lower than most other groups.

America lowered the voting age to 18 with the 26th Amendment in 1971. In 1972, nearly half of eligible young people turned out to vote. Since then, the voting rate for 18- to 24-year-olds in presidential elections has hovered between 30 and 45 percent, with average turnout of about 40 percent according to data from the Census Bureau. For midterm elections, the average is closer to 20 percent.

More striking than the low averages is the consistency of the difference with older Americans. In any given election year, the youngest voters always turn out at lower rates than their next oldest counterparts, who always turn out at lower rates than their next oldest counterparts, and so on, until you reach the oldest Americans. Since 1972, older Americans have voted at an average rate of 67 percent in presidential elections and nearly 59 percent in midterms. The fact of this pattern should obliterate any speculation about generational difference. There’s either something about being young that precludes or prevents political participation, or there’s something about the structure of American elections that impedes young people from participating.

It’s much more likely that something is the instability that comes with being young. You’re less likely to have a permanent address, less likely to have secure and flexible employment, less likely to have the confidence to participate in the political process. You can see all of this in a set of interviews with young adults who say they won’t vote in this week’s elections, published in New York magazine. Some respondents are cynical or simply uninspired. But others report real obstacles to their ability to participate.

Megan, age 29, says she moves too much to keep track with her registration. “I rent and move around quite a bit, and when I try to get absentee ballots, they need me to print out a form and mail it to them no more than 30 days before the election but also no less than seven days before the election,” she said.

Anna, age 21, also says the process is too cumbersome. “I’m trying to register in my hometown of Austin, Texas. It’s such a tedious process to even get registered in Texas, let alone vote as an absentee,” she says, adding that “if someone had the forms printed for me and was willing to deal with the post office, I’d be much more inclined to vote.”

Jocelyn, age 27, also blames the process. “It was easier to get my medical-marijuana card—not a right, or even federally legal—than it was to register to vote. Massachusetts had online registration but only if you have a DMV-issued ID. I don’t drive, so I was like, okay, I can register in person, but I’m also dealing with a chronic illness.”

Maria, age 26, doesn’t want to commit the time. “The idea of leaving work, forwarding all of my calls to my phone, to go stand in line for four hours, to probably get called back to work before I even get halfway through the line, sounds terrible.”

With each account, we have a different example of how our voting system doesn’t actually encourage voting, especially among people whose lives are a defined by a certain amount of instability and unpredictability. Look beyond young adults to the larger population of nonvoters and you see a significant group whose lives are marked by traits associated with a lack of stability. They are less likely to have college degrees, more likely to have family incomes below $30,000, and more likely to belong to racial and ethnic minorities, making them more likely to experience conditions associated with instability.

Our system has adopted universal suffrage, which points toward open and easy access to the ballot, but our heritage in political exclusivity—where voting was once a privilege reserved for property-owning white men—continues to influence our handling of elections. Voter identification laws are tied to a sordid history of discrimination and vote suppression, but even procedures as uncontroversial as voter registration contain assumptions about who should participate. (Indeed, voter registration was first developed as a method to keep recent immigrants and the poor from the ballot box in Northern cities and was used similarly against black Americans in the Jim Crow South.) Our voting system is tilted toward people with stable, conventional lives. And that, overwhelmingly, is who participates, producing a conservative bias in the status quo.

Our government is less representative than it could be because of our voter-unfriendly policies. So even if you disdain young people who can’t find the will or time to vote—even if you’re unsympathetic toward the uninspired or the uninterested—you should want to fix this problem.

It’s not a difficult one to solve. Automatic, universal registration would obviate the need for any action from individual voters, who would be registered upon contact with state agencies like the DMV; pre-registration of older teenagers would prepare the youngest voters for political participation; and Election Day registration would open the doors to anyone eligible to cast a ballot. If bundled with vote by mail (with a stamp provided by the government), states could eliminate most obstacles to participation, with no obvious downsides. (Voter fraud, after all, is practically nonexistent.)

This isn’t speculation. After Oregon passed automatic voter registration in 2016, an additional 270,000 people were added to the voter rolls. New voters were disproportionately black, Latino, and Asian American, and more likely to belong to the youngest age cohorts. Automatic registration also increased the economic diversity of the state’s electorate. Likewise, in Colorado, vote by mail has boosted turnout among young and infrequent voters.

As long as voting is voluntary, young people will likely always vote at lower rates than their older counterparts. Instability may be the most concrete limiting factor, but there’s also just something about being young—about being preoccupied with your first years of adulthood—that makes politics a secondary concern. There are cultural factors too. Several New York magazine interviewees felt too uninformed to responsibly cast a ballot, which suggests a discourse that puts too high a premium on arbitrary political knowledge and not enough on knowing oneself as a political actor with a legitimate claim on the state. Perhaps more young people would vote if they knew knowledge of issues was less important than knowledge of their own interests.

But if there is an upper bound to youth turnout under the constitutional status quo, we haven’t reached it. And the reasons have everything to do with how we still structure elections to advantage people with time, money, and property.

Moralism and appeal to civic virtue may move some nonvoters off the sidelines in time for Tuesday’s elections, and if they live in states with same-day registration, they’ll be able to cast a ballot. But that “if” gets us to the larger issue: We will only have a culture of voting and high turnout if we build one. And if there is apathy and disdain for political participation, we should understand that it’s likely produced by institutions and systems that too often do everything they can to keep people from having a say in their government.