Young voters aren’t apathetic — they’re anxious.
Stress over where, how and for whom to vote — and wondering if their vote even matters — plays an overwhelming role in young peoples’ electoral participation.
Numbers-wise, these uncertainties aren’t preventing young voters from showing up. This midterm season, 18- to 29-year-olds are projected to keep up their record-breaking turnout at polling places around the country, continuing the upward trend in electoral participation seen in recent years.
But these stressors are shifting how young people are navigating electoral politics, participating despite their trepidations. Young advocates and organizations around the country are helping their peers overcome these voting anxieties, while simultaneously working to remove their root causes.
Young people are voting — and they are not a monolith
There are two narratives attached to the youngest voting bloc that aren’t accurate, many experts say.
First, young people, oft accused of being apathetic, are showing up on Election Day. In 2016, only 39 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds cast a ballot, compared to 50 percent in 2020 — still the lowest compared to older age groups, though by a much closer margin than in the past. In November, the number of young people at the polls is expected to match that of the 2018 midterms, which was a historic high.
And second, young people are not a monolith. By 2025, 50 percent of 14- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. will be non-white. Approximately 14 percent live in rural areas. Those under 30 years old are more disaffiliated from organized religion than ever before. And the number of young immigrant voters — or those who come from immigrant families — is greater than ever and continues to grow.
Stress and anxiety are driving young people to ballot boxes
Since 2016, the uptick in young voters closely following elections and becoming engaged in electoral politics can be attributed almost completely to the stress and anxiety they feel over their futures and freedoms, experts say. The role of politics and polarization during the pandemic, nationwide reckonings on racism and policing, the climate crisis and recent abortion bans have all affirmed — directly and in short order — how government decisions affect individual lives.
“From being in college during the Trump era, and based on what we lived with the pandemic, we realize how much civics really matters,” said Mena Enuenwosu, a fellow with Chicago Votes.
“We are trying to attempt to fix something, and not everyone believes they’re going to see that change in their lifetime. It’s sad, but it’s the track record of what we’ve experienced,” added Temi Akande, also a Chicago Votes fellow.
Amanda Avalos, co-executive director of Leaders Igniting Transformation, a Wisconsin-based youth voting advocacy organization, said these recent experiences place young voters in a unique position to organize and understand the importance of civics. “This generation is seeing the real-life impact of policies in their face, and in a way that adults haven’t experienced when we were younger,” she said.
Candidates are ignoring young voters, who are ignoring them back
Oftentimes, because of the notion that young voters are apathetic, candidates ignore young people in their campaigns and messaging — such as not showing up to round tables or responding to invites to speak, which has been Avalos’ experience in Wisconsin, where the youth vote is projected to be the fifth most influential of Senate races across the country and the most influential of America’s gubernatorial elections.
These sentiments contribute to a feedback loop — the overwhelming feeling among young voters that specific candidates rarely represent them, said Alberto Medina, the communications team lead at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
“If you aren’t touching on issues that actually affect us, then what are we voting for? That’s what I hear my younger sisters say,” Enuenwosu said.
As a result, young voters are shifting from candidate-based organizing to issue-based organizing more so than any other demographic, said Arekia Bennett-Scott, executive director of Mississippi Votes. This change in approach mirrors the “voting is necessary, but not sufficient” mindset that civics researchers have observed from young people since 2016.
Participating in protests and activism can feel more rewarding and inclusive — even those who aren’t old enough or able to vote can still engage with pressing issues. And at the top of young voters’ minds this November: abortion rights, environmental concerns and issues centered on policing and crime.
Anxiety over process and place
Young people aren’t immune from the numerous obstacles that all people face when trying to cast their ballots — long lines, confusion over polling locations and being unable to take off school or work deter voters of all ages, Bennett-Scott said.
But there are obstacles that affect young voters more poignantly than others. “Young voters don’t have an issue of apathy, they have an issue of access,” a spokesperson from Rock the Vote told Grid. “For young voters, especially those that haven’t voted before or don’t pay attention to politics on a regular basis, there’s an information barrier.”
A lack of attention on civics and voting education leaves many young people intimidated in the voting booth, said Katrina Phidd, communications and digital strategy manager at Chicago Votes. In her work, she finds that high schoolers often don’t know they can bring their phones, voting guides or other materials to help fill out ballots.
They also don’t know how comprehensive a ballot can be — especially for local elections, Phidd said. There is a gap in understanding the roles of certain governmental positions, or which districts or wards represent one’s home. Especially during presidential or gubernatorial elections, it can be a surprise for young people when dozens of other less-covered races appear on the ballot. Feeling ill-informed, there is anxiety associated with potentially voting for someone whose values don’t actually align with one’s own, she said.
A lack of representation at the polls
There is also the matter of representation — who is and isn’t at polling places. Eighty-seven percent of young voters say they don’t see other young people working at the polls; 74 percent say they don’t see poll workers who look like them; 15 percent said poll workers “don’t understand or care about” people like them.
In some cases, both Phidd and Bennett-Scott said police presence outside polling places can dissuade young voters — especially Black and brown voters — from wanting to go inside. “Polling locations not being seen as welcoming places where young people can feel confident in their voting could certainly be a source of voting anxiety,” Medina said.
Alternatives to in-person voting aren’t always very clearly communicated, either. For college students who are moving to and living in new places, different state-to-state guidelines on early voting, absentee ballots or voter registration deadlines are a source of confusion and stress. The same goes for those with a record or who lack an ID, Bennett-Scott said. Both can still vote, but often assume they can’t.
Working to reduce voting anxiety
One of the most effective ways to quell anxieties about voting, experts say, is to make accessible voting plans. Peer-to-peer support and communication, Medina said, resonates with young people and makes them feel heard. “We have to engage young people as stakeholders and leaders in democracy,” he said. “And that’s going to look totally different for different types of youth. That’s big — not treating youth as a monolith.”
Creating social media campaigns and digital voting guides that tap into pop culture without reducing young people to only trends and fads, Phidd said, are great ways to inform.
Another crucial step is to prepare young voters by educating them on civic processes, year-round. It’s often the offseasons and nonpresidential election years, Avalos said, that some of the most important learning takes place — focusing more on lesser-known parts of government, and local bills and ordinances being proposed and voted on.
“This generation of young folks has a set of values and principles that drive the way that they interact with the world,” Bennett-Scott said. Despite anxieties, and physical and invisible barriers to participating in electoral politics, “young voters really want this to work.”
Using their voices, despite disillusionment
A poll this spring from the Harvard Institute of Politics found that “59 percent of young Black Americans, 43 percent of young Asian Americans, and 37 percent of young Hispanic Americans feel ‘under attack a lot’ in America.” The poll also found that young people feel like their vote doesn’t make a difference, increasingly lack faith in the two-party system and believe that “politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges our country is facing.”
And yet, even if it feels as though the odds are stacked against them, young people continue to recognize the importance of voting.
“Cynicism doesn’t necessarily lead young voters to disengage,” Medina said. “The more that young people say that they are cynical, the more likely they are actually to vote. Just because they’re disillusioned with the politicians, doesn’t mean they’re necessarily disillusioned about their own power.”
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.