The U.S. Is Failing to Engage Young People in Democracy

But researchers have a plan to nurture the next generation of voters

Institutions and communities have not been doing their part to prepare the nation’s young people to participate in and sustain our democracy, according to a recent report from the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. As a result, despite being eager to raise their voices, people under the age of 30 remain underrepresented in the electorate, with huge disparities in their voting rates depending on race, ethnicity, socioeconomic and education levels, disabilities, and where they live and go to school.

The CIRCLE Growing Voters report recommends a new approach to engaging youth in democracy, recommending steps that schools, policymakers, community groups, and others can take to expand the number of young voters, eliminate inequities in turnout, and create a more representative electorate. It draws on data from CIRCLE’s survey of teens ages 14-17, as well as CIRCLE’s analyses of the past two national elections, voter files, and past research on youth civic education and engagement.

“We’ve been studying and supporting youth participation in elections for two decades,” says CIRCLE Deputy Director Abigail Kiesa, one of the report’s five authors. “Cycle after cycle we’ve seen young people being left out of the process and the resulting political inequality.”

22% of youth ages 18-21 didn't register to vote because they didn't know how.

An obvious question, says Kiesa, is why promote youth voting when it’s unclear if politics can ever change? She has a ready response: “At this moment when we’re looking at our democracy harder and talking about what to do to sustain it, it’s a good time to be talking about how we can welcome a broad group of young people into our democratic processes.”

To learn more about what it takes to engage young voters, Tufts Now spoke with Kiesa and fellow report author Ruby Belle Booth, A21, who began working with CIRCLE as an undergraduate student research assistant.

Tufts Now: What excited or surprised you about the information CIRCLE uncovered for the report?

Abigail Kiesa: One of the things that’s extraordinary is the teen data we collected in 2020. Data about teens and elections is rare. We see young people who are able to learn about elections

Abigail Kiesa

CIRCLE Deputy Director Abigail Kiesa. Photo: Courtesy of CIRCLE

and voting at really early ages, young people who are not learning about it at all, and everything in-between. These disparities show a fundamental failure of institutional democracy.

Ruby Belle Booth: The teen data is definitely the most exciting part. This report highlights how hungry young people are for opportunities to participate in spite of barriers to access. Seeing how interested and engaged they are despite the messages they may get from news media and other institutions, even their own families, that they’re apathetic is inspiring to me. Young people’s resilience in the face of institutions that aren’t offering them the support they need is one of the things that I love about my generation.

Social media. Good, bad or indifferent in growing young voters?

Booth: If I were writing my answer, I’d write “GOOD” in all caps but parenthetically add “(some of the time).” Our research shows that young people are engaged on social media, and this makes them feel more empowered and provides a way for them to learn about voting and civic engagement in general. That said, social media and the Internet are not the ticket to young people’s engagement. Our research shows that young people often don’t use online tools that remind them to vote. Online registration increases registration but tons of young people don’t have online resources. Social media is a tool in the tool box but not necessarily the path to more equitable youth engagement.

The report recommends continually growing voters rather than focusing efforts during election season. How do we do that?

Kiesa: We need to do what we’re not doing now, such as building voter engagement into other processes, like when young people are getting a library card, getting a driver’s license, or going to a health center. There are other places where we can reach an equitable and broad group of young people. Many states, including Massachusetts, have voter preregistration at 16 and 17 and more than 40 states allow 16- and 17-year-olds to be poll workers. Those pathways are absolutely not being maximized.

Ruby Belle Booth, A21, who began working with CIRCLE as an undergraduate student research assistant.

Ruby Belle Booth, A21, who began working with CIRCLE as an undergraduate student research assistant. Photo: Courtesy of CIRCLE

Booth: So often voter outreach is partisan or transactional. Rather than beating people over the head about a candidate or a race, we need to focus on the importance of voting in a democracy. We need to stay away from approaches to registration and turnout that are centered on exhausting political topics.

If we want more young people to be engaged, we also have to know what excites them and what messaging is meaningful. Young people have a strong B.S. barometer. Involving more youth in local organizations, political campaigns, and policy leadership roles, and allowing them to co-create opportunities and messaging is the best way to create authentic opportunities for involvement. If institutions are going to be pumping resources into getting young people to turn out, they’re going to have to embrace them as leaders, constituents, and peers.

Where is progress being made? Who’s getting it right?

Kiesa: The Chicago Public Schools system and its Department of Social Science and Civic Engagement are doing a fantastic job of supporting teachers to teach about elections in nonpartisan ways. We worked with the city of Minneapolis to do a small study about their long-time program offering teens opportunities to be poll workers. Young people are tech savvy, often multilingual, and can make polls feel much more welcoming. Some media outlets are getting a diversity of youth voices out by giving them a column or a radio show during an election cycle.

There’s also a significant role for higher education institutions to play. Colleges and universities, like K-12 schools, are anchors in their communities and can naturally collaborate with local educators, nonprofits, and other community members to nurture youth voting, for example by providing space and possibly staff for engagement events. As we at Tufts work to be an anti-racist institution, we need to think about how we partner with our communities to build a diverse, multi-racial, equitable electorate.

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