Will COVID-19 impact youth voter turnout in the U.S.? A public policy expert offers answers.

Batten professor John Holbein discussed youth voter turnout and the coronavirus pandemic during the latest installment of Batten’s expert chat series.

We’ve known for a long time that the turnout rate for young American voters is extremely low. The question is: Why?

During the latest installment of Batten’s expert chat series, Batten professor John Holbein shared insights from his new book, “Making Young Voters: Converting Civic Attitudes Into Civic Action,” which he co-authored with Duke University professor D. Sunshine Hillygus. In his talk, Holbein covered the vexing problem of low youth voter turnout, possible solutions, and how we should adjust the voting process in light of COVID-19. He also took questions from his online audience about everything from voting by mail to how K-12 instructors can help.

Holbein began his talk with some sobering statistics, including the fact that a full 7 in 10 young Americans failed to cast a ballot in 2018. Although the gap between younger and older voters actually exists in most countries, he explained, youth voter turnout in the U.S. is “uniquely low.” 

For a long time now, we’ve thought we knew why that might be. “Previous research has suggested that young people don’t turn out to vote because they just don’t care—that they’re apathetic, disengaged,” said Holbein. As a result, some organizations have “sunk millions and millions of dollars into trying to make voting cool.”

“But there’s some reason to think this approach is misguided,” he said.

Surveys show that young people are actually very interested in politics and that their interest is growing. In 2016, for example, 9 out of 10 young people indicated a desire to vote. “In the book, we look at this gap between intention and behavior,” Holbein said. “For young people, the challenge is less that they’re disinterested and more that they don’t follow through.” 

Holbein and Hillygus uncovered three common reasons for the gap. First, some young people lack confidence that they’re informed enough to vote; statistically, older people feel more comfortable voting with lower levels of knowledge. Second, some young people are intimidated and confused by the registration process, fearing that they’ll make a mistake on their registration forms. Unfortunately, they often do, Holbein said: One study showed that as many as 50% neglect to include key pieces of information like their signature or social security number. Finally, the lives of many young people are generally more tumultuous than those of older citizens, which means that they tend to get sidetracked in their attempts to vote or register.

How can we help? The answer lies in making specific changes to both education and election laws, Holbein said. Lawmakers can make voting easier by allowing online registration, same-day registration, automatic registration at the age of 18, or pre-registration at the age of 16 or 17. Educators can rethink how civics is taught, creating curricula that emphasize “immersive, applied learning.”

“Instead of just teaching young people facts about the constitution and politicians from 200 years ago, schools can focus on contemporary issues,” Holbein said. As a model, he cited democracy-centered charter schools, where students interact frequently with elected officials, work with local nonprofits, and help register other citizens to vote. 

The hands-on voter registration drives held at some schools can also make a major difference in youth voter turnout. But with the arrival of the pandemic, such drives—which frequently happen in spaces like cafeterias or gymnasiums—are no longer happening. We need to start thinking about replacement efforts, Holbein said. 

Given pre-existing problems with youth voter turnout, he added, “we can and should push for voting by mail” in the age of COVID-19. “In the midst of a pandemic, keeping rates of youth voter registration similar to what they’ve been in the past is actually a victory,” he said. “And if we increase rates of youth registration, that’s even better.”

Most importantly, regardless of what the next election year brings, it’s clear that young people want to be involved politically, as can be seen by the way they’ve organized around climate change, gun control, and other issues, Holbein pointed out. “Young people definitely have the capacity to engage,” he said. “It’s just about giving them the skills they need to follow through on their good intentions.”