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Why Youth Don’t Vote: Differences by Race and Education

Youth of color and those without college experience can face more—and different—barriers to voting.

Many efforts to increase youth voting focus on getting young people registered. That’s a crucial component to driving electoral engagement, but it’s only half the battle; we need to ensure that registered youth actually go out and cast a ballot on Election Day. In 2016, nearly six million young people (ages 18-29) were “undermobilized”—meaning they were registered but did not vote. The problem of undermobilization is even more acute in midterm elections: 12.5 million registered youth did not vote in 2014.

Examining the myriad reasons why young people don’t end up going to the polls is key, as is understanding the differences in those reasons given by youth of different backgrounds. In previous analyses, we’ve explored those differences based on educational attainment. Using data from the 2016 Survey of the Performance of American Elections (SPAE) allows us to deepen our understanding of these disparities by once again looking at differences between young people with and without college experience, and by looking at differences by race and ethnicity. Because the SPAE survey only includes individuals who were registered to vote at the time of the election, it provides unique insight into undermobilized youth and suggests areas of concern that campaigns and advocates can focus on as they aim to increase youth voting and engagement.

Differences between Youth with and without College Experience

Far and away, the most common reason given for not voting,1 by both youth with and without college experience, was not liking the candidates or the issues (65% cited it as a minor or major factor),which suggests that parties and campaigns are having trouble connecting with and motivating youth across the board—or at least did so in 2016. The second most common reason was also widely shared between young people with and without college experience: 47% and 44%, respectively, said that they were too busy or had a conflict on Election Day, which for students may mean classes and, for youth who aren’t in college, a job.

After that, however, different experiences begin to emerge. The third most common reason for not voting among non-college youth was a lack of transportation: 35% said it was a major or minor reason, compared with just 19% for youth with college experience. This may be both due to differences in socioeconomic status and, for current students, the location of polling places on/near campus or the availability of programs to provide transportation to the polls. Transportation is a significant barrier regardless of educational attainment or other demographic differences: 29% of all youth in the survey cited it as a reason why they didn’t vote, with 15% calling it a major factor. Relatedly, non-college youth were also more likely to cite the inconvenient hours or location of polling places (32% vs. 15%) and the lines at the polls being too long (27% vs. 19%) as factors that led them not to vote.

Other disparities went the other way and point to obstacles faced by young people at colleges and universities. Though 20% of all young people, with and without college experience, cited “registration problems” as a factor, those with college experience were more likely (15% vs. 11%) to call it a major reason why they didn’t vote. We know that university students often struggle with voter registration because of difficulties with their address and other issues related to living on campus. Likewise, though about 21 percent of both college and non-college youth mentioned concerns about voter ID, young people with college experience were more likely to say that lacking proper identification was a major barrier to voting (11% vs. 8%), perhaps due to concerted attempts in some states to disallow college ID cards as a valid form of voter identification. Finally, as one would expect, 33% of college youth mentioned that being out of town was a factor (compared with just 22% of non-college youth), and 23% said that they did not receive an absentee ballot in time to vote, which also highlights a particular concern for young people in college out of state who want to vote in their hometown.

Differences between White Youth and Youth of Color

Additional differences become evident on the basis of race and ethnicity. Young white nonvoters were significantly more likely than youth of color to cite being “too busy” as a major or minor reason why they didn’t cast a ballot, 55% to 41%, respectively. Youth of color, meanwhile, were more likely to report that lacking proper ID influenced their absence from the polls (28% to 17%). The disparate impact of voter ID requirements has been emphasized in the literature and by civil rights advocacy groups like the ACLU. Some studies, including a recent one from researchers at the University of San Diego, found that “strict photo identification laws have a differentially negative impact on the turnout of Hispanics, Blacks, and mixed-race Americans in primaries and general elections,” though other studies show mixed results. Nonetheless, lacking ID appears to be at least a perceived barrier to voting per the results of this survey.

Youth of color also had more trouble locating their polling place by a significant margin, with 39% saying that it was “very” or “somewhat” difficult to determine where to vote, versus 27% of white youth. This difference is noteworthy because, in the lead-up to the 2016 elections, some counties in Southern states where elections were formerly regulated by the Voting Rights Act began systematically closing polling places, according to a report from the Leadership Conference Education Fund. As the report explains, shuttering voting locations is a “particularly common and pernicious tactic for disenfranchising voters of color…who may be less likely to have access to public transportation or vehicles, given continuing disparities in socioeconomic resources.” As one example, the ACLU recently threatened to sue election officials in a predominantly black county in Georgia for a plan to close seven of its nine polling places for this year’s midterms. This survey seems to reinforce the disparate impact of making it tougher to find your polling place.

Even youth of color who may have found the polling place were significantly less likely to vote because they lacked the means to get there or couldn’t afford to spend time in long lines. Thirty-eight percent of youth of color said that lacking transportation played a minor or major role, whereas just 27 percent of young white nonvoters said the same. Moreover, youth of color were more likely to be dissuaded from by long lines at the polls: 30% said it was a minor or major factor, whereas just 25% of white youth cited this reason.


[1] As asked in the survey, these describe what young people identified as “minor or major factors” that led them not to vote.