It’s election season in the U.S., and get-out-the-vote efforts are in full swing. And one question being asked by pundits and politicos is, how can we motivate young voters to show up at the polls?
After all, in the most recent presidential election, less than half of citizens ages 18 to 29 participated, compared to 71 percent of those 65 and older and 67 percent of eligible voters ages 45 to 64..
But a book published earlier this year by two political scientists tweaks that question. Young people are already plenty motivated to vote, the authors say, but they don’t always follow through to cast ballots. So this book asks, what is it that prevents young people from actually voting?
The answer has implications for political campaigns, policymakers and of course for educators. The book, called “Making Young Voters,” offers a surprising insight about what kind of education actually influences youth voting behavior—and it’s not necessarily civics class.
“Making Young Voters” was written by Sunshine Hillygus, a professor of political science at Duke University, and John Holbein, assistant professor of public policy and education at the University of Virginia. To learn more, I spoke with Hillygus, who recently gave a speech about young voters for the National Academy of Sciences.
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The book has an interesting backstory. It was inspired in part by a political debate in North Carolina, where the state legislature scrapped the option for preregistration, which allows people as young as age 16 to “fill out a voter registration form so that once they come of age, they don't have that additional hurdle to go through to be able to vote,” Hillygus explains.
The professor realized that there was little evidence available whether preregistration even makes much of a difference for young voters, so she and Holbein set out to study it. They found that the option is effective at increasing youth turnout, and that the young people who preregister and then ultimately cast ballots aren’t closely affiliated with either major political party.
“We also found in our analysis that it was especially effective when it was coupled with efforts within high schools to demonstrate voting, to have a registration drive,” Hillygus says.
This research that started in a political debate ended up circling back to affect policy. Hillygus and Holbein’s work was used in a federal lawsuit that resulted in preregistration becoming available in North Carolina again.
“Hopefully that's exactly what academic research can do—is actually be relevant,” Hillygus says.
Below are lightly edited highlights from the conversation.
EdSurge: What are the traditional theories or stories about why young people do or don't vote, and how does that compare with what you found?
Sunshine Hillygus: There's oftentimes this assumption that the only thing that we need to do to increase youth turnout is to get young people more interested in politics and more motivated. And there's a variety of different explanations for why. It's often assumed that young people are not motivated. Sometimes, it's thought that it's because the politicians that are running tend to be really old and focusing on issues that are less relevant to young people. And it certainly is the case that there's a greater focus on things like Social Security in our public policy making than on things like education, in part because of the composition of the electorate. Other people say that the nature of politics today has just turned off young people. It's so polarized and seems so dirty that, you know, who would want to get involved in politics now?
And certainly we do find that, for instance, in civic education courses, that teachers are quite reluctant to talk about politics for fear of how parents will react if they're talking about current policy issues. But the key premise that we challenge is that young people are not motivated, and that that's what needs to change in order to increase youth turnout. We find that young people are incredibly interested. They're incredibly motivated to participate in politics. They care about who is elected. And in fact, the vast majority of them, when asked before an election, they say they plan to vote.
And what we discover is that they don't follow through on that, so that while they say they plan to vote, very few actually do. And that's where there is this massive gap and difference between young people and older people, is that young people are far less likely to follow through on their intentions to participate.
So what prevents them from following through, or what enables those who do to follow through?
In the United States, in particular, there are hurdles that have to be overcome in order to vote. And so it's not so simple, to say you're going to vote and then do it. You also have to register in advance, and you have to—depending on the state—follow a particular set of rules. And those hurdles end up impacting new and young voters more than those who have experience and have gotten into the habit of voting in the past. What we find is that there are both internal and external barriers to participation that impact young people more.
The key thing that we want to focus on is that if you want to think about the policy solutions to increasing youth turnout, you can't just get a bunch of celebrities to say that voting is cool and that you should care about politics. Young people care about politics. Instead we need to identify those barriers that are keeping young people from following through on those intentions.
And that's where registration laws….voter ID and a variety of different institutional barriers end up having an impact on young people. There's also kind of stage-in-life barriers that we also talk about, and that is young people are more likely to be distracted from their intentions. You think about the fact that most 40-year-olds ... have a stable work-week where you kind of know when you'll fit voting in on that first Tuesday in November. Whereas young people have a far more fluid and unstable schedule and lifestyle. That means that intentions to do a lot of things sometimes are harder to follow through on.
So it's not all just the election reforms that are needed. Even making voting and registration much, much easier, it won't entirely solve the problem.
But what we do find is that there are a number of election reforms that do disproportionately affect young people, and making it easier to participate will help to increase youth turnout.
The book takes an interdisciplinary approach to studying voter behavior. What can fields other than political science tell us about young voters?
We most directly engage education and psychology. One of the things that we show is that the young people who are best able to overcome any barriers and who are most likely to follow through on their intentions to vote are those who have stronger what are called non-cognitive skills. Non-cognitive skills are the self-regulation and motivational factors that can affect our ability to achieve our goals in any setting—political or nonpolitical. So the same thing that when you say that you're going to exercise, when you say that you're going to study for a test, any of the things that we think about in terms of achievements, that there's a set of non-cognitive or social-emotional skills that help people to follow through on their goals. Those same set of skills matter for civic participation as well.
So this has been a big debate within the education policy world. How much should we be focusing on math and reading, and how much should we focus on these social-emotional skills? And so we bring to bear these experiments and surveys and qualitative interviews to look at whether there would be civic payoffs for investments in the development of these non-cognitive skills.
And so, for instance, we report on the results of this very intensive experiment where nobody was thinking about politics at the time, they were all just thinking about, can we take underprivileged children and help them to develop these set of non-cognitive skills to help with things like high school graduation and attendance and college. And what that study found is that with all of this investment in teaching self-regulation, that there were payoffs in terms of things like high school graduation.
We then matched those same individuals to voter files and found that there were also payoffs in terms of civic participation. That those underprivileged children who were randomized to receive skill development were also more likely, 10, 15 years down the line, to vote.
What lessons does your research offer for educators hoping to encourage teenagers and young adults to participate civically and to vote?
This is really one of the key lessons: Our civic education curriculum right now is really broken.
We show that civic education is having a small impact on the political knowledge of young people, but absolutely zero impact on whether they actually participate. … We used to spend a lot more school time on civic education. And so we've seen not only a decline in civic education, but also what we call bubble sheet civics, where it's really focused on memorizing facts about history and reading legal cases. And it's very disconnected, not only from politics today, but from the actual processes of voting. One of the key takeaway lessons is not just that we need more civics, but rather we need a different type of civics.
And in fact, there's several ways that I think that actually we're doing some harm by teaching civics that is both disconnected from politics [and] also fails to teach the right type of political knowledge. One of the big internal barriers that we identify is that young people, more than old people, hold themselves to an information standard about the election that is much, much higher than what older people do. So the young people we find that they frequently say, “Well, I planned to vote, but I ended up not doing as much research as I thought I should about the issues and the candidates. And so I didn't feel well informed enough to vote.”
Old people, they vote regardless. They know that they are able to muddle through and represent their interests through using heuristics of party and so on that young people—and this might well be the reflection both of the way we teach civics. But also we have this kind of hyper-information environment in which people know that they could spend all of this time doing research about the issues and candidates. And I think young people kind of assume that other people are doing that—and so they don't want to vote using party. They don't want to be a voter who's not well informed.
And so one of the things that we need to do is both teach about the basic mechanics of what it takes to register and to vote and also really emphasize the point that it's about participation. It's not about who you vote for. It's not about the information basis of that vote. Democracy is sustained by people showing up.