Civilian national service programs can powerfully increase youth voter turnout

Low rates of youth voting are a feature of contemporary democracies the world over, with the United States having some of the lowest youth turnout rates in the world. However, far too little is known about how to address the dismal rates of youth voter participation found in many advanced democracies. In this paper, we examine the causal effect of a potentially scalable solution that has attracted renewed interest today: voluntary national service programs targeted at the youth civilian population. Leveraging the large pool of young people who apply each year to participate in the Teach For America (TFA) program—a prominent voluntary national service organization in the United States that integrates college graduates into teaching roles in low-income communities for 2 y—we examine the effect of service participation on voter turnout. To do so, we match TFA administrative records to large-scale nationwide voter files and employ a fuzzy regression discontinuity design around the recommended admittance cutoff for the TFA program. We find that serving as a teacher in the Teach For America national service program has a large effect on civic participation—substantially increasing voter turnout rates among applicants admitted to the program. This effect is noticeably larger than that of previous efforts to increase youth turnout. Our results suggest that civilian national service programs targeted at young people have great promise in helping to narrow the stubborn and enduring political engagement gap between younger and older citizens.