Will Young Voters Be More Than Vocal, and Actually Cast Ballots, this election?

With 100 days until the presidential election, GOP and Democratic candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will be seeking to unify their parties. Clinton, in particular, will have to sway young voters who made up the base of her former challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT).

Depressed voter turnout, especially among youth, has become accepted as the norm in American politics. Polls show growing dissatisfaction and disinterest in politics among Americans. A 2015 Pew Research Center article showed that only 43 percent of Americans aged 18-29 paid attention to events and figures in Washington in 2012, down from 58 percent in 2008.

Gallup polls showed that Clinton’s favorability rating among 18-29 year-olds was 47 percent in July 2015, but are now at 31 percent a year and primary campaign later. In this time, the young demographic changed from her most favorable to her least. Clinton’s and Trump’s overall favorability ratings are currently both just below 40 percent.

Candidates historically receive a boost after the conventions, which explain why the national polls tightened following the Republican National Convention last week. Despite the absence of former Republican presidents and presidential nominees and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) not endorsing Trump during his primetime speech at the RNC, which would suggest disunity, Trump’s polls jumped as much as 5 percentage points, according to FiveThirtyEight.

Polls have yet to reflect Clinton’s polling bump after the Democratic National Convention, but party leaders praised the Sanders campaign in an attempt to coax his outstanding supporters who booed and protested Clinton’s nomination following WikiLeak’s release of emails showing DNC officials favoring Clinton. Now, Clinton, Trump and their running mates have formally begun the general election campaign with time to persuade dissatisfied voters.

Even with the seemingly bleak outlook on politics, organizations and clubs in the Chicago area, for example, are doing their part to increase political interest on campus. These groups engage students locally, but the overarching nationwide trend is that youth voter turnout remains largely unchanged.

According to data published by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, in 2012, national participation in the presidential election declined from 2008, but the youth vote took the greatest hit. Youth turnout dropped 6.1 percentage points to 45 percent. In comparison, overall turnout dropped 4.8 percentage points. Voters aged 18 to 29, which had been the fastest growing bloc in 2004 and 2008, became the fastest shrinking.

In 2010, the Northwestern University Center for Civic Engagement created a project called NU Votes, which sought to register incoming students at Northwestern. The success of the program led it to expand into UVote, which in 2012 covered eight schools in California, Illinois, Missouri and Virginia. The associate director of CCE, Rob Donahue, said the group will focus on schools in the Chicago area. According to UVote, only 41 percent of students at the university were registered to vote before the project’s first registration event took place in 2011, but 89 percent were after.

The CCE’s inspiration to create NU Votes came out of the university’s goal to teach students about citizenship, as well as their legal obligation to, in accordance with the Higher Education Act, Donahue said. UVote seeks to register students to vote when they receive student identification cards, a practice similar to what the Motor Voter Act put in place for driver’s licenses.

The HEA requires colleges and universities to provide students with voter registration forms and to provide information in good-faith, a requirement Donahue believes should be the minimum.
“It’s obvious that the requirement was placed in there as an effort to promote civic engagement among college students,” Donahue said.

While Donahue said UVote’s mission is to follow the spirit of the HEA, not just the words, he recognizes that there are more steps that must be taken.

“If you want to teach people to be smart, effective, engaged citizens… then there’s a lot more work to do about making sure that students are actively engaged in their community, paying attention to the news and what kind of issues are going on, particularly issues that might affect them,” Donahue said.

CCE student fellow David Tyson sees that students may not come to the voting booths as frequently as every other American, but it does not necessarily mean they are without opinion.
While the efforts of the CCE could increase college student voter registration statewide, not all young adults attend such institutions. According to the NCHEMS Information Center in Boulder, Colorado, in 2009, 34.9 percent of Illinois adults aged 18-24 were enrolled in higher education and 36.2 were nationwide.

Despite 2012 election statistics, there is evidence that youth may be taking interest in politics again. CIRCLE found that citizens aged 18 to 29 turned out at 24 percent for the 2016 Illinois primaries, up from 18 percent in 2008.

The Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California Los Angeles released results in February that show an increased interest in politics and activism among college freshmen. In 2015, 40.4 percent of college first years believed it was very important or essential that they stay up to date on political affairs, up 5.4 percentage points from the previous year.

Whether a cause of a manifestation of the rising political interest, protests and rallies have been common this campaign cycle. Trump canceled a March 11 rally at University of Illinois at Chicago after he deemed the rally unsafe due to violent protesters, most of which were young and UIC students.

Although the underlying level of activism may be higher in this young generation, the increased political interest reported by HERI may simply be a result of the election cycle, as 2015 marked the start of the presidential primary season.

Other events that could be driving young political interest are efforts like the Black Lives Matter movement, which grew to national prominence after starting as a hashtag in 2013 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin.

While improving racial understanding and race relations is sought out by more youth than in recent years, the largest increase came from black students. According to HERI, 63.8 percent of black freshmen in 2015 believed improving racial understand and relations was very important or essential, an increase of 6.4 percentage points from the previous year.

“The mainstream press has done quite historically a terrible job of covering issues that matter to minority communities in this country,” said Northwestern University journalism and political science professor Larry Stuelpnagel.

Now, with current events bringing these issues to the forefront again, the younger voting population may be paying more attention. Activism and awareness, though, do not necessarily turn into voter turnout.

“[Sanders drew] huge draw of young people, but doesn’t get as many votes as there were in that room that day,” said Peter Slevin, an associate professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. “That interest in his campaign so far has not fully translated into young people showing up at the polls.”

What Sanders’ campaign showed is that Millennials have issues that they care about but still lag behind the rest of the nation in voter turnout, nothing new to the nature of American politics. Now, two of the most unpopular presidential candidates in American history top the major parties’ tickets.

As evidenced by the increased youth turnout for the Illinois primaries, this combined with local efforts to turn youths’ political interest into votes may be what is needed to incorporate the younger voting bloc into the political environment.

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