How to Turnout Young Voters Each Fall

A frequent election question received from readers – particularly Democrats – is how more young voters can be engaged and turned out to vote. To answer, SactoPolitico asked recent guest contributor Ben Testani, 24, to share his thoughts. Based in Oakland, Testani is a digital strategist for progressive political causes and author of the Substack column I’ve Ben Thinking. There he chronicles his experiences and perspective on topics ranging from politics to internet culture to mental health.

“For many [young Californians], politics rank low on the list of personal priorities.

The Los Angeles Times, Oct. 10, 2022


Every fall, there is a rash of hit pieces like the above that decry the lack of youth votes. Voters like myself under who 29 years old and younger are often portrayed as disinterested and apathetic.

This has continued this midterm cycle despite plenty of evidence that shows the actual youth voter turnout in California is far from the dismal performance headlines would have you believe. According to a 2021 Tufts College report, voter turnout among registered California voters 29 and younger increased by 17 percentage points from 37% in 2016 to 54% in 2020. This was partly enabled by the switch to automatic mail-in ballots for all Californians during the pandemic.


In addition, the total number of registered Californians age 18 to 24 tripled since the 2015 enactment of the California New Voter Motor Law. This went from from 591,000 in 2014 to more than 1.7 million by 2020.


With nearly one-eighth of all registered voters falling into the youngest age range and our state government actively working to eliminate barriers to voting, it seems likely that 2022 will break the youth voting records set during the 2018 midterm election and 2020 general election. But could youth voting rates be even higher? Yes, and I have identified three key factors further depressing youth participation on Election Day.


Forming a Habit


Voting is a habit, just like exercising or making your bed. And like all habits, you have to learn how to start voting before it becomes routine. A 2004 study from Pennsylvania State University found a significant correlation between the likelihood an eligible voter actually votes and whether or not their parent voted. In other words, if you grew up with family who prioritized voting, you are much more likely to go out of your way to vote once you become eligible yourself.


I was fortunate to have parents who were both eligible to vote and passionate about civic participation. I even have an early memory of clinging to my mom’s pants as she cast her vote, years before I could reach the ballot box. But for hundreds of thousands of young Californians, this is not the case for reasons far beyond their own control. Whether their parents are not U.S. citizens, are currently serving a felony sentence and ineligible to vote, or are just disinterested in electoral politics, a significant chunk of young Californians grow up in homes where voting was simply not a priority.

Universal vote by mail, teenage pre-registration, and Motor Voter are all crucial steps toward helping more of our youngest voters build the habit from a young age. To further promote habit formation, the state government should leverage social media to create voting PSAs targeted at young voters to highlight just how easy it is to register to vote and cast a ballot in California. This 2021 PSA from the SOS is great, but the government needs to better reach young voters where they naturally reside online, such as TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter.


Geriatric Candidates


As highlighted perfectly by the 2020 election, younger voters often do not feel represented by candidates simply because of their age. In last battle for the White House, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump vied to become the oldest candidate ever elected to the White House, as both would have broken the record set by Trump when he was first elected in 2016 at age 70.


This lack of representation is not limited to the presidency. As shown by the chart, Congress skews much older than the national population. In California, our own Senator Dianne Feinstein has yet to decide if she will run again in 2024 — at the age of 91 — and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has represented San Francisco in Congress since 1981. When younger voters watch retirement-age senators ask nonsensical questions of Mark Zuckerberg during an official Congressional inquiry into Facebook, it is no wonder they don’t feel represented by the names on their ballot.


On the other hand, our two youngest-ever presidents — Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy — were extremely popular with the youngest voters. Each packaged an age-agnostic platform with novel voter outreach through the new media platform of their era. President Obama pioneered the use of social media for political campaigning years before most people owned their first smartphone, while President Kennedy outshone Vice President Richard Nixon on the first nationally-televised presidential debate.


A candidate doesn’t need to be in college to excite college-aged voters, but a candidate in their forties is much more likely to relate to the policies most pressing to young people — educational debt, renter’s rights, protecting the climate — than a candidate who was nearly 30 when the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971.


Younger candidates are also more familiar with the best ways to run get-out-the-vote (GOTV) campaigns with younger voters. Like my plea for nonpartisan, pro-voting outreach to adapt to present-day social media, young voter GOTV campaigns need to recognize that social media has changed; a simple Facebook and Twitter approach is no longer sufficient for connecting with younger voters.


Speak on Issues that Matter

Of course, age does not doom a candidate to lack of youth support. Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Ed Markey (D-MA) are both over 75 years old but enjoy tremendous youth support thanks to their activism on the topics that matter to those in the Gen Z and Millennial age brackets.


Opinion polling regularly finds significant gaps between the priorities of youth voters and the rest of the electorate. A national survey by YouGov found that 12% Americans ages 18-29 rank climate change as their top priority, the most popular issue of the 15 included in the poll and making 18-29 the only age group to pick the environment, rather than inflation, as their top concern.


An additional 10% of the youngest respondents identified health care as their top issue, which does not include the 8% who separately selected abortion. And young people were much more in support of President Biden’s student loan debt relief plan than older people, with 62% of those aged 18-29 in favor of the $10,000 cancellation initiative, compared to just 47% of those ages 45-64 and 37% of those 65 and older.


Senators Sanders and Markey are vocal supporters of the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, and both called on President Biden to cancel $50,000 of student loan debt per borrower from the moment he took office. It is little wonder, then, that despite their advanced age they remain popular among the youth. By leveraging their decades of experience to support policies that young people desperately back, they guarantee themselves a stable of energetic young supporters each election cycle.


At the more local level, the inverse of Senators Sanders and Markey is California’s youngest statewide elected official, Alex Lee (D-Milpitas). Currently 27, he first took office at 25. Lee has spent much of his tenure advocating for public housing, likely well aware that the youngest Californians are priced out of home ownership entirely, and for a statewide health care for all program, which 18-29 year old voters overwhelmingly support.


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California has already done the hardest part by eliminating the largest hurdles for first-time voters through the Motor Voter law and universal vote-by-mail. But to further increase youth participation each Election Day, both national parties need to realize our state’s youngest voters are desperate for candidates who better understand and represent our generational experiences and interests. If the parties are serious about representing voters of all ages, they must recognize that it is time to turn over the reins of elected office to the next generation of leaders.


Ben Testani wrote most recently for SactoPolitico about Proposition 29 and dialysis industry reform in California.


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