Young voters could be the deciding factor in close political races across the country this year – if only they would show up to the polls.
Historically, voter turnout among those under 30 is low. That’s especially true for primary races.
Indiana has several congressional seats and a U.S. Senate seat on the ballot May 8, but it’s unlikely a large amount of young adults will cast a vote.
Most Young Voters Don’t Plan To Participate In Primary
There are more than 40,000 students on Indiana University’s Bloomington campus. That’s almost as many students as there are long-term residents of the city. They have the potential to significantly impact the outcome of elections.
In fact, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, or CIRCLE, named Indiana’s U.S. Senate Race among the top ten races that could be influenced by young voters this year.
“Young people, for instance, in the 2016 election were split between the Republican and the Democratic presidential candidates,” says Abby Kiesa, director of impact for CIRCLE. “So, it’s a unique state in that small changes in the youth vote could really have an impact on both candidates and who they attract, because it is such a close race and because other age groups are so predominantly Republican.”
But, that requires young people to actually show up to the polls. And, historically, they don’t.
“Ever since people 18 to 21 got the vote in early 1970s, the proportion of people under the age of 25, and in fact under the age of 30, coming out to vote has been somewhere between about half and maybe 60 percent of the turnout rate of elderly people, people 65 and over,” says Marjorie Hershey, a political science professor at Indiana University.
In the 2016 Presidential election, IU Bloomington’s student voter turnout rate was just over 45 percent. And, it’s much lower for primaries.
Students say they don’t even know who the candidates are in next week’s races. So, many don’t plan to vote.
“I feel like the only ones that I really effect me are like president,” says IU student Mikayla Wright. “I don’t really know any of the candidates for the primary, no one really knows about them I feel like – especially young people.”
IU student Autumn Siney says she doesn’t know enough about the candidates to feel comfortable casting a ballot.
“I don’t really want to show up and just check boxes,” Siney says. “And, so, I want to take time to actively do some research, which is difficult in the business of what is classes right now.”
Universities, School Districts Trying To Increase Student Engagement In Elections
The university is trying to increase student participation in elections by helping them register to vote. IU is part of the Big Ten Voting Challenge, which is a friendly competition that started last year to increase student voter turnout.
“When they were following, tracking the data from 2012 to 2016, we had an almost five percent increase,” says Lisa-Marie Napoli, associate director of IU’s Political and Civic Engagement Program.
Napoli says research revealed there are several barriers to student voting, including transportation. That led a number of student groups to advocate for a more central voting location on campus this year.
“We actually think it’s going to make a big difference,” she says.
Transportation to the polls is a barrier an Indiana school corporation discussed, too.
The Vigo County School board considered busing 18-year-old high school students to polling places. Community reaction was mixed and ultimately the board decided not to act on the proposal.
“We don’t believe that taking kids out of school during the school day and busing them to the polls is the right thing to do now or in the future, however we do think it’s important to get them to the polls,” says Superintendent Danny Tanoos.
Tanoos came up with an alternate plan to help get students to voting sites.
Recent student-led protests surrounding gun control helped spark the discussion about transportation in Vigo County. The level of student activism in response to the Parkland, Florida school shooting is something the country hasn’t seen since the Vietnam War.
But, that momentum is unlikely to translate to a significant impact at the polls.
“The turnout rates in the past when there are other movements that have been very important to young people have suggested that that generates maybe a slight blip, but not a big one,” Hershey says.