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Capturing The Millennial And Gen Z Vote

The Making Young Voters book cover
Courtesy of Sunshine Hillygus

What keeps youth voters from the polls? The longstanding assumption is that the under-30 electorate just does not care about that part of the political process. But a new book argues against that premise. 

In “Making Young Voters: Converting Civic Attitudes Into Civic Action” (Cambridge University Press/2020), co-authors Sunshine Hillygus and John B. Holbein compile data from surveys and interviews to show that what keeps people under 30 from the polls is not apathy, but other barriers. Strict voting laws that constantly change; a lack of focus in high school civics curriculum; and what they call “non-cognitive skills” like perseverance and self-discipline play a large role in whether or not a young voter will fulfill their civic duty.

Host Frank Stasio talks with Hillygus, Duke University political science professor and co-author of the book, about her recommendations for how to better engage young voters.

Interview Highlights

On the rates of youth voter turnout over time:
It's pathetic. Really, since 18-year-olds got the right to vote [in 1972], young people have turned out at sometimes half the rate of older voters. There was a lot of attention in 2018 about how things had changed and young people were incredibly motivated and having a large impact. It's worth pointing out that, yes, it was historic. But it raised from, like, 20% turnout in the midterm election to 30% turnout in a midterm election.

On how changing laws discourage youth voters:
There’s also confusion about the rules because they vary a lot across state — and frankly, within North Carolina — a lot across time. And so things like voter ID, where it was implemented and then rescinded and then put into a constitutional amendment and now is is on hold, creates confusion. We had a youth advocacy group tell us that in 2016 they decided to sit out North Carolina and focus on other states because they just didn't know what the electoral rules were.

On how high school civics classes are not sufficient:
As currently conceived, what we call “bubble sheet civics” is failing. It is absolutely not preparing young people to participate in our democracy, even though that was one of the fundamental motivations for the creation of public education. And so we show this across a variety of data sets and methods, that [the classes now] might improve people's rote memorization of some political facts. But knowing who the chief justice of the Supreme Court is, is not what is necessary in order to get people to actually vote in an election.

On voter registration efforts in NC high schools:
Less than half of high schools say that they are running voter registration drives. It is much higher among public high schools compared to charter schools. So only 27% of the charter schools that we interviewed said that they hold voter registration drives. We should keep in mind that state law says that registration forms should be available in high schools, but what that [looks like in] high schools varies a lot. Sometimes it's a stack of forms in the counselor's office that's available by request. Sometimes there's a table in the cafeteria during a presidential election year. At the best schools, they're doing in-class demonstrations in which they are instructing young people that you only have to be 16 in order to be able to fill out the registration form.

Josie Taris left her home in Fayetteville in 2014 to study journalism at Northwestern University. There, she took a class called Journalism of Empathy and found her passion in audio storytelling. She hopes every story she produces challenges the audience's preconceptions of the world. After spending the summer of 2018 working in communications for a Chicago nonprofit, she decided to come home to work for the station she grew up listening to. When she's not working, Josie is likely rooting for the Chicago Cubs or petting every dog she passes on the street.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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