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Boston Highlights Potential, Challenges in Off-Year Electoral Engagement

Less than 2% of young Bostonians voted in the 2015 mayoral election.

Bostonians of all ages voted for their mayor and for other important city positions yesterday and, as in many other cities across the country and in state elections in places like New Jersey and Virginia, questions abound about young people’s participation in these off-year contests. Because data on votes by age aren’t available from exit polls or from city authorities, we cannot calculate youth turnout in yesterday’s Boston election. But we do know that, historically, Boston youth follow the same trend as their peers throughout the United States: they are much more likely to turn out in presidential years than for local elections that are conducted in odd-numbered years.

For example, in 2016 about 35% of young eligible voters in Boston (ages 18-29) voted, just slightly lower than the estimated youth turnout rate for the nation as a whole (39%) and far behind the 62% turnout rate for older Bostonians (ages 30+). That November, almost 61,000 Bostonians under the age of 30 voted, and 80%-87% of the registered young adults in each ward turned out. In eight of the city’s wards, youth turnout as a percentage of registered voters was actually higher than older residents’ turnout.1

By contrast, in the 2015 off-year elections, youth turnout in Boston was under 2 percent, compared to almost 15% for Bostonians aged 30 or older. While there may be some caveats to that low participation rate—for example, Boston’s exceedingly high proportion of college students may mean that many of its youth are registered and voting elsewhere—the drop in off-year turnout points to a critical problem in our democracy that must be addressed by concerted action in areas like community engagement and civic education.

Boston is an especially vital city in which to address this problem, as it has several civic assets that are needed to build an environment the supports engagement of all youth. Of particular import, Boston is a hub for many extraordinary community and youth engagement organizations, like our partner Opportunity Youth United, which can play a critical role in connecting young people with local issues in ways that underscore the importance of state and citywide elections. In addition, precisely because it has so many colleges that attract students from around the country, more than a third (35%) of the city’s population is under 30 years old, and universities can play a critical role in the political learning and engagement of youth who attend these schools.

Time will tell if these efforts were successful in 2017, but they are an important part of the blueprint for increasing youth participation in off-year races.

[1] These estimates represent CIRCLE analysis of voter file data via Catalist and population data using the Census American Community Survey.