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Youth Voter Registration and the 2014 Midterms: Lessons from 2010

Explore our comprehensive analyses of youth voter registration, including how young people register, why some don't, and why some registered youth don't vote.

With the 2014 midterm elections just over the horizon, conversations have begun about the potential influence of youth. CIRCLE has been studying this issue for some time. Youth participation is consistently lower in midterm elections than in presidential elections. Even when youth turnout in presidential elections has risen, midterm turnout has remained roughly the same.

Most young adults (ages 18-24) who register to vote actually vote in presidential years; but in midterm years, many registered young adults do not vote. The pattern is somewhat different for college and non-college youth. In response to a question that we received, we ran the following table:

Note that the turnout of youth who registered to vote has been very high in recent presidential elections, but was not nearly as high in the 2010 midterm.

Why did many registered youth not vote in 2010? Young people in college were most likely to say that they didn’t vote in 2010 because they were “too busy” or faced “conflicting work” (34.7%) or were “out of town or away from home” (23.1%). In contrast, only 5.3% of non-college youth cited the latter reason for not voting. However, they were more likely to say that they were “not interested” (19.4%) or “forgot to vote” (12.3%).

In 2010, many college students who were in school in a different state from their primary residence lacked information on how to vote via absentee ballot, which is often a multi-step process. Providing information to college students on how to cast absentee ballots could also help youth already registered to vote. Our groundbreaking National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement is generating insights and data on how to engage college students.

The “other reasons” category is quite large, especially for non-college youth, 33% of whom chose it. Additional research would be required to learn more about their reasons. At least 30% of both students and non-college youth said they were “too busy” or had “conflicting work.” Increased outreach by campaigns and organizations could help motivate some of these young people to vote, as we’ve seen from previous research about the “power of the ask.”

Additional—and perhaps markedly different–efforts are required to reach young people who aren’t in college. They start with lower levels of knowledge and engagement; they are less likely to hold the government IDs required for voting in some states; and they are harder to contact because they are not concentrated on college campuses. Some effective nonpartisan groups do reach out to non-college youth, often using cultural organizing and social media. Non-college youth are most likely to benefit from favorable policies, including better k-12 civic education and more convenient voting. See the report of CIRCLE’s Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge for policy recommendations.

Why Half of Youth Don't Register to Vote

Less than half (49%) of young people, ages 18-29, were registered to vote in the 2010 midterm elections, a decrease of two percentage points from 2006 and the lowest registration rate for a midterm contest in the last two decades. That’s one of the highlights from our recent analysis of youth voter registration, which also explores why almost half of young people were not registered to vote in 2010, the election most comparable to this November’s upcoming midterm.

By far, the most common reason given by both youth and older adults (age 30+) for not registering to vote in 2010 was a lack of interest. It is worth noting, however, that contrary to the conventional wisdom that young people are apathetic or indifferent, they were actually slightly less likely (48% to 51%) to say that they were not interested or felt their vote would not make a difference.

The most significant disparity in why youth and older adults did not register to vote had to do with difficulties in the process. Nearly a quarter of young people (24%) said that they did not know where or how to register, or that they did not meet the registration deadline. For adults over 30, those two reasons accounted for only 14%. These data underscore the need to provide young people, many of whom are first-time voters, with accurate and timely information about the registration process.

This outreach will have even greater importance for the upcoming midterm election. Since 2011, states across the country have passed an increasing number of laws that restrict and often complicate the registration process. Our analysis of 2012 voting data found that these new policies especially affect youth. While there was no difference in the registration rate of adults 30 or older, in states with these restrictive laws 53% of youth were registered, whereas in states without these laws the registration rate was 59%.

Fortunately, the same appears to be true of policies, like same-day registration (SDR), that make voter registration easier and more convenient. The aggregated registration rate of young people living in states with SDR (63%) was six percentage points higher than the registration rate among youth living in non-SDR states (57%).

The marked effect of these policies on young people presents both challenges and opportunities for advocates and practitioners. Our analysis suggests that efforts to improve the electoral engagement of young people must include simple, convenient registration processes, and sharing concrete information about those processes with youth. It is also important to explore those “other” reasons for not voting in 2010 cited by almost 15% of young people. This is a substantial proportion of youth who may become engaged if their particular reasons for not registering to vote can be identified and addressed.

How Youth Register to Vote

The gaps in voter registration between youth, aged 18-29, and older adults go beyond merely the registration rate, and include important differences in how and where they register to vote. That’s one of the highlights from our recent analysis of youth voter registration data which focuses especially on the 2010 midterm, the most comparable contest to this upcoming November’s election.

In 2010, almost a third of young people registered to vote at a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), which was also a top registration site for adults over the age of 30. When it comes to other registration methods, however, there are starker differences between both age groups. While young people (11%) are half as likely as older adults (22%) to register at a town hall or other local government office, they are more than twice as likely to do so at a school, hospital, or college campus. And, though the absolute percentages are relatively small, youth are also significantly more likely to register online. In fact, in 2010, hundreds of thousands did so.

These findings point to significant opportunities to increase youth political engagement. While it is no surprise that young people are more likely to register to vote in school, only about one in 10 of them are doing so. Both secondary and higher education institutions can play a much larger role in providing students with information and opportunities to register. In fact, many institutions are required to do so by the Higher Education Act.

Youth also favor voter registration methods that are convenient and accessible: during the 2012 cycle, in the states where online registration was available, 12.8% of young voters registered online. As more states implement online registration systems (13 have done so since 2010), the Internet will become an even more valuable tool for politically engaging young people. The availability of same-day registration (SDR) also affects youth more than older adults; in 2012, almost half of young voters in states with SDR registered at the polling place, and the rate of youth who did so at the DMV dropped from 31% to just 10.3%. As such, CIRCLE continues to find that youth in states with same-day registration have higher turnout rates than those states that do not.

It is vital for practitioners to follow this changing policy landscape closely, and to be aware of where and how young people register to vote, in order to increase and improve their youth engagement efforts. Additionally, it is also important for legislators to be cognizant of how youth and other citizens register to vote, so that these systems enable broad participation.

Why (Some) Registered Youth Don't Vote

When it comes to youth political engagement, especially in midterm elections, getting youth to register is only half the battle, as registered voters aged 18-29 are less likely to cast ballots in midterm cycles than in presidential contests.

That is one of the takeaways from our latest fact sheet on young people’s registration and turnout rates in midterm elections. This analysis by CIRCLE Deputy Director Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg explores these facets of youth electoral engagement with particular focus on the 2010 contest, the election most comparable to the upcoming 2014 midterm.

Youth registration rates in midterm elections have dropped in the past 12 years, from 56% (the highest since 1974) in the 2002 contest, to 49% in the 2010 midterm. By contrast, in the 2012 presidential election, the registration rate for young people was 58%. When it comes to turnout among young registered voters, the gap between presidential and midterm cycles is significantly wider: almost four out of five registered youth voted in 2012, but slightly less than half did so in the 2010 midterm election.

Many factors likely contribute to this difference in youth turnout rate: a relative lack of media attention, a scarcity of competitive races, and less voter outreach. The brief includes Census data from the 2010 midterm, which point to several differences in why young people and adults over 30 who are registered do not cast a ballot.

Some gaps point to ways in which youth political engagement can be strengthened. More than twice as many young people said that they did not vote because of “registration problems” like not receiving an absentee ballot or not being registered in the right location. This may reflect that many are first-time voters who are less familiar with the process, particularly if they moved for school or work and had to adjust their registration accordingly. Measures that simplify the registration, address change and voting process could help reduce that gap; they could also help reduce the 10% who said they simply forgot to cast their ballot.

The biggest reason cited by registered youth who did not vote in 2010 was that it conflicted with their work. One third of all registered but non-voting youth said so, while only a quarter of those over 30 gave that response, which may indicate that youth generally have lower-level jobs with less flexibility to take time off on Election Day. Measures like early voting could be instrumental in ensuring that youth have time to go to the polls and increasing their voter turnout.

Read the full fact sheet on youth voter registration in midterm elections. In the coming weeks, we will publish further analysis of these data and what it might mean for the upcoming 2014 contest.