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From #Parkland to the Polls: Teen Activism and Youth Voting in 2018

The youth-led movement against gun violence has focused on voter registration, which may help increase the electoral engagement of the youngest eligible voters.

Young people across the country are leading the debate about gun violence in the U.S. in the wake of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. Their words and actions have served to underscore the diversity of young people’s views and experiences, and have resulted in a national conversation about youth participation in America—along with questions about how that activism could impact political engagement and election outcomes in 2018 and beyond.

This focus on youth voting will be further highlighted during this weekend’s March for Our Lives, when thousands of activists and volunteers are expected to help eligible teens register to vote, and where the explicit connections between voting and policies like gun control could help crystallize for youth the importance and implications of their electoral engagement.

Connecting teen experiences with elections is a critical task. When we look at data on how the youngest of young voters have behaved in past elections, we find: 

  • The number of 18 to 20-year-olds registered to vote in 2016 was considerable: 11 million. This weekend’s efforts, along with the proliferation of facilitative practices like automatic and online registration, could help that number skyrocket this year.
  • By the time teens turn 18, there are already considerable gaps in civic and political participation among youth, including in voter turnout. These disparities must be understood and corrected through targeted interventions, especially in midterm years when registration is lower than for presidential elections.

  • Given how low it has been in recent cycles, there is extraordinary potential to increase youth voting in midterm elections. That’s doubly true for 18 and 20-year-olds, whose participation has been even lower than their older under-30 peers, as TIME highlights, using our data, in their recent cover story.
  • Outreach should not stop with voter registration. Youth are often left “undermobilized” (meaning, they register to vote but do not go on to actually cast a ballot) because they are not contacted as often as older voters. While tools like text-message reminders and maps of polling locations can help get young people to the polls, they are still more likely to turn out if they receive personal outreach. In the 2014 midterm, 12.4 million youth (ages 18-29) were undermobilized and their votes were “left on the table.”