Young voter turnout is lower than overall voter turnout. But, as we approach the 2018 midterm elections, UC Berkeley public policy student Sarah Edwards speaks with Buffy Wicks, Sarah Anzia, and others to find that there are reasons to be optimistic about young voter engagement:
- Millennials are opinion leaders—and have helped transform the social, cultural and political landscape in the last decade
- Young people are a tech-savvy cohort who can and are deploying technology to get out the vote
- While hot-button issues for young voters have been notably muted or absent, increasing concern around college loan debt and social safety nets are poised to drive interest and engagement higher
Wondering how to get more involved and have better conversations about voter engagement? Here’s a few ideas from our team:
- Attend community meetings in your local community
- Join our mailing list at Berkeley Institute for Young Americans
Speakers featured on this episode
Buffy Wicks is a candidate for the CA State Assembly in District 15. She was one of the architects of President Barack Obama's 2008 and 2012 campaigns.
Sarah Anzia is a political scientist who studies American politics with a focus on state and local government, elections, interest groups, political parties, and public policy. She is the Michelle J. Schwartz Associate Professor of Public Policy & Associate Professor of Political Science at the Goldman School of Public Policy.
Joshua J Dyck studies American politics, public opinion and voting behavior, elections, and state politics. He is Associate Professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
Buffy Wicks: [00:00:00] Well I think what we see with younger voters is, I do think younger voters feel like okay is the system really working for me? Right? And they're questioning the system. And when you do that as a younger voter, you realize it's not working for me. Younger voters right now, I mean look at the Bay Area. Younger people buying homes? No, because housing is so expensive. Right? Job security? There's no more sort of clocking in and clocking out, and 35 years later with a pension. And your retirement that you're set for life, that doesn't exist anymore. Coming out of school with huge amounts of debt, right? I mean there are reasons why younger voters feel this angst and this concern. Those are legitimate reasons. And so while I do see that there are younger voters who have a distrust of the system, it doesn't mean they're not engaged; they're very engaged.
Sarah Edwards: [00:00:53] That was Buffy Wicks, a candidate for State Assembly in District 15 which includes the city of Berkeley. And this is Talk Policy To Me. As we're coming up on the November election, everyone's wondering what the results will be which really depends on who turns out. Voters ages 18 to 29 historically have a bad rep for not voting. But looking at the political climate of today, is that actually still the truth? I'm Sarah Edwards. Let's talk about young voters.
Sarah Edwards: [00:01:37] For context, we start with Goldman professor Sarah Anzia, a political scientist who studies voting. I asked her why young adults traditionally don't vote.
Sarah Anzia: [00:01:49] Well I guess the first thing I'll say is it's easier to not vote than it is to vote. We actually, in the United States, make it really difficult to vote. People have to register, if somebody moves ,they have to re-register, even if they moved across the street. We vote typically, we vote on Tuesdays. So people have to take time off work; and away from their families. We also have a lot of elections, so there are just a lot of reasons you know why voting is difficult in this country compared to elsewhere.
But what research has shown as far as individual characteristics that are associated with greater likelihood of voting, there are several that really stand out. Income and education are big ones. It hasn't always been this way. If you go back to the 19th century, this was less the case. But nowadays, more educated people, people with higher incomes are much more likely to participate. Age is a big one. So older voters, older citizens, are much more likely to vote than younger citizens. And then you know certain things like the strength of partisanship, so strong partisans people who affiliate strongly with the Democratic or the Republican Party, are more likely to vote. Being a government employee makes you more likely to vote.
So those are some of the individual characteristics that make someone more or less likely to vote. The other factor that's really important is how competitive the race is. Competitive races, close races, just tend to generate higher turnout than less competitive races. So I think I think those are really the big things.
Sarah Edwards: [00:03:21] That's useful. When we're thinking about voting and young people voting in particular, we have to consider presidential elections and midterm elections as two separate things. How are those different?
Sarah Anzia: [00:03:36] Typically, in a presidential election, about 60 percent of the voting age population, so everybody 18 and over, participates in the election. And in midterm elections, you typically take 20 percentage points off of that. So think about 40 percent of the voting age population participates. And of course there's variation around that. So in 2016 about 56 percent the voting age population participated. And back in 2014, I think it was something like 36 percent of all voting age population participated and that was one of the lowest participation rate in midterms in over 70 years, in 2014. So you're looking at a gap of about 20 percentage points compared to presidential elections. And understanding that there are a lot of people who don't participate in presidential elections either. As turnout goes down, say going from a presidential election to a midterm election, younger voters are disproportionately likely to fall off. So the share of the electorate, the voting electorate that is sort of older increases as you go to these lower turnout elections and that's a really important feature.
Sarah Edwards: [00:04:49] So young people historically have low voting rates, and even lower rates for midterms. But what about young people today? Are the Millennials any different? Gen-Z? To understand what these two groups look like and what matters to them, we turn to Professor Josh Dyck, a political scientist from University of Massachusetts Law.
Joshua Dyck: [00:05:15] At the national level, Millennials generally are characterized by being a generation that is very liberal, more liberal than other generations, more liberal certainly than the three generations that came before them. And it looks like more liberal, or at least more Democratic-identifying than the generation that's tailing it, these Gen-Zers. And so certainly this is the most Democratic, capital ‘d’, so Democratic-identifying generation since the New Deal generation—since the generation that was socialized coming out of the Great Depression and during FDR's New Deal. So that's the first thing about Millennials.
The other thing about Millennials is that, they sort of were opinion leaders on a couple of social issues which really transformed the political landscape in the last 15 years, 10 years. So same sex marriage is one of them. In particular, if you think about how rapidly the politics of LGBTQ issues have changed in this country, it's largely because the gap in acceptance of LGBTQ lifestyle and views about marriage equality, the difference between 18 to 29 year olds and Millennials, and that generation 65 and over were just tremendously different. Also very different on attitudes towards mass incarceration, marijuana, and also on a variety of issues about racial profiling and race in general. One of the things that's very distinctive about Millennials, that we talked about a lot when we did the national survey, is that Millennials are an extremely diverse generation. In fact, 45 percent of Millennials, that cohort, are non-white. And so part of the reason that this generation is very different than their contemporaries is that we're getting just a fundamental transformation demographically of the United States and so millennials are just very different.
Part of what's driving this change has to do with the diversity of that generation. Now in terms of California, Millennials, they didn't think, for instance, that they'd be able to buy a home or retire comfortably in the state of California. Millennials did not believe that those were things that were part of the California dream that they would be able to attain in their lifetime. But on the other hand over 80 percent of them said that they very much believed in the part of the California Dream that said, you know your kids can do better than you. And so that very much tells this immigrant story.
Sarah Edwards: [00:07:58] So Millennials are diverse and we're thought leaders. I'll take that. Gen-Z, this generation that's coming after our Millennials are still a mystery as far as voting behavior goes. And both Gen-Zers and Millennials will be included in this year's 18 to 29 age range which is that age range that gets that bad rap for not voting, but instead of just looking at these groups and their characteristics, let's zoom out to look at the political landscape.
How does the politics of the moment impact whether or not those folks are voting?
Joshua Dyck: [00:08:40] Think about what it would have been like to have been a young person who's being socialized in an election and your first election was the 2016 election, I don't wish that on any person. You have two candidates who had net negative favorability ratings. This was in a very aggressive negative campaign. It was a very strange campaign. I imagine that a young person watching the 2016 presidential election who came away thinking that, that's what politics is would be very predisposed to say, “I'm an independent.” And so to the extent, that those socialization patterns hold, we may be seeing some of that is just a spillover of system angst and people not associating with either party. The Millennials, who are solid, are very, very liberal and are pro-Democrats. They kind of have that anti-Bush, pro-Obama effect, right. That's the Obama generation. And these younger Millennials didn't get socialized by the 2008 election or everything that happened between, say 2004 and 2008. It was not something that they were really aware of. These elections and these stories become part of their their story and about about what politics is.
Sarah Edwards: [00:10:12] Okay so it sounds like the political landscape of the moment makes a huge impact in how young people are perceiving that—and taking that as they think about if they want to step into the voting booth. But what would it look like if young people did turn out in mass numbers? We turn to Sarah Anzia.
Sarah Anzia: [00:10:36] This is probably the most important question here. On the one hand, if you just look at the way our state and our the federal government spend money, if you look at the nature of how they spend money that tells you something about government priorities and regardless of how you feel about it, it is a fact that overall states and the federal government are spending more and more on programs that tend to benefit older people. So Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. I realize of course that older folks are only a share of people who are benefiting from Medicaid but they tend to be the more expensive ones. And then at the state level, public employee pensions. These are things that governments are spending more and more on and that means they're spending less on other things.
So to the extent you can back out like you know say something about government priorities. I think this is a really good indicator of that. It's hard to say what would be different if younger people participated more. And I think an easy objection would be, well look at all the money spent on K-12 education at the state level, but those are people you know younger than 18. We're sort of talking about that bracket in the middle.
One of the tricky things I think about doing this sort of hypothetical dance about what would happen if more young people participate is that it's less clear what kinds of government programs young people want more of. So I did this project on local elections; it had to do with age bias and local elections in California, and you know it was easy to sort of devise tests of well as older folks make up a greater share of the electorate, you get policies friendlier to senior citizens because there are city policies and programs that are designed for senior citizens like city-level transportation services that are just for seniors.
But when I tried to look at the other side of the coin and say well, when do we see policies that are friendlier to younger people? It wasn't obvious to me what I should even be looking at. I thought about bike lanes, maybe I should be looking at that, but that tells you something. The fact that it's hard for us to even say okay here are policies that younger people tend to prefer. Do we see more or less? We can't even think of what those might be.
I think that this is a really important feature, especially of local government. When it comes to local elections, homeowners tend to vote at high rates. They're paying property taxes they have kids in the public schools, maybe. They have a very clear direct stake in what their governments are doing. It's not obvious what that attachment is for younger people; what connection they have to local government. So I mean that's I think the first thing I want to say. It's telling right, we don't even know what we should be looking for as effects of younger folks participation. The other thing, I guess, I just want to make clear is that voting is just one piece of this. So yes, it is true that especially now with Democrats and Republicans so far apart from one another, turning out in elections is really important because whether you elect a Democrat or a Republican has huge consequences and very clear ones, right? As we've seen, especially over the last few weeks. But over the last several years as well.
At the same time when it comes to public policy-making, voting is just one thing. And older folks tend to be better organized into groups so think AARP, and at the local level there are all there are often senior commissions that advise the city council on policy making. There are planning commissions and zoning boards where people come to participate in the decision-making, and if you look at there some really interesting research being done by one of our graduate students here at Berkeley, Alexander Sahn, and some other folks at Boston University about looking at participation rates of different groups in these local commission meetings. And if you think that turnout is biased in favor of older people, go to these you know, look at these data; it's mostly people who are 65 and older, and young people are not playing a role. And this is where decisions about housing are made and decisions about development.
So it's important to it's important to talk about rates of Millennial voting and the voting of young people, but at the same time it's all these other forms of participation that are also very important.
Sarah Edwards: [00:15:12] We understand now why someone would or wouldn't vote in general, why a midterm election is different from a presidential election, what we mean when we're talking about the young people who would or wouldn't be voting, and what those young people care about. We also have our context for how the political landscape of a moment impacts whether or not people are interested in voting as well as the concept of what the world might look like if young people really did turn out to vote in higher numbers. So now we turn from an academic understanding to speak with someone who's on the ground and deeply entrenched in these issues.
Sarah Edwards: [00:15:55] Max Lubin is a graduate student at the Goldman School of Public Policy, the founder of Rise California and recently started the community network voting platform, Vote Crew. Vote Crew leveraging social media and the power of community to get young people to turn out. So what's the future of youth turnout from where you stand?
Max Lubin: [00:16:19] The mission of Vote Crew is to make student the most powerful group of voters in the nation. And we do that by campus organizing and having effective technology on the back-end, but the reason you hear there are essentially two reasons you hear about young people voting lower rates than other groups.
The first is that campaigns and advocacy organizations don't invest in young people; they don't even often pay their interns if they're a college student. And so you talk to a campaign manager and they'll say you know cost us five dollars to win over a voter over 40, but 25 to win over a voter under 20. And so you just don't see campaigns making a systemic investment in hiring, developing, and organizing young people.
And the second is that the more that we propagate the notion that young people don't vote, The more likely that they are to not actually vote. And so when we hear people run around and say only 8 percent of young people go out to vote in California in 2014; all that message does is normalize the idea that 92 percent of young people it's OK not to vote. And so a big part of this work is not just that organizing, it's not just the technology, it's changing the culture around voting and saying that as part of celebrating our democracy celebrating the few good pieces of it that we have left. We have to all do our civic duty and really really make sure that we all get out and vote as a celebration.
The only way that we can dig ourselves out of this mess is for young people to get out to vote. There's nothing more powerful that we can do than rally our friends to make sure that every single one of us gets out and vote because it's not just who the elected offices that are on the line, the policies that come along with it; it's the direction for our communities for our campuses and for the country.
Sarah Edwards: [00:18:12] Okay that's incredibly useful. You know we can really be leaning on each other to help make sure that we're all voting because it obviously really matters but we can't talk about youth mobilization without considering the wave of new faces on the scene. We're looking at the new candidates who are more racially diverse generally more progressive, include more women, and yes more young people. As someone who falls in the 18 to 29 age range myself, I can say that I feel more inspired by candidates that I can actually identify with personally. But is that personal identification enough to bring young people to vote? Buffy Wicks, a candidate for California State Assembly gave us her thoughts.
Buffy Wicks: [00:19:05] People are hungry for a change now and I think you have a whole new generation of young leaders who are stepping up to the plate, stepping into the arena to run for office; a lot of people tapping into that energy. To me like you know it's easy to feel I think hopeless sometimes on our politics, but when you look at all these young candidates, all this energy, to me that that that is a proof point that there is a lot of energy and enthusiasm out there and that people are hungry for this. So I actually think we are on the precipice of hopefully taking this country into a new direction; one that's really looking at issues of equity and access and you know valuing our public goods like education and all these things that we really, really care about.
Sarah Edwards: [00:19:49] Back to Josh.
Joshua Dyck: [00:19:51] Yeah I mean I think those things have a potential impact. There are some specific candidates to specific places which I think have the potential, Andrew Gillum in Florida, I think he has the potential to see a big surge in turnout among young people and young people of color. I think Stacey Abrams in Georgia, I think Beto O'Rourke in Texas. I mean like those are those are some campaigns where I think young voters may be especially consequential. You also have, I think, the count right now is 256 women contesting House or Senate elections, which is a record. It actually bests the year of the woman from '92 by actually quite a large margin, and most of this is in the House. And so yeah I think young voters may play a role in this.
Sarah Edwards: [00:20:53] So young people are seeing new candidates that they can better identify with. And that's ramping up the energy. You know we have efforts like Vote Crew to hold each other accountable. But is that enough to bring them to vote.
Max Lubin: [00:21:07] I think it's going to be a historic high for a midterm election. So we're seeing particularly in races where there are candidates who are speaking to issues that affect young people, much much higher rates of students and young people getting out to vote. So I think overall we should be we should be having a lot to celebrate on November 7th, the day after the election.
Sarah Anzia: [00:21:31] The truth is, I don't know. One of the big changes, I guess this cycle, is the competitiveness of the elections. And so, even if we find that turnout is higher; is it because of the identity of the candidates or is it because you're seeing more challengers—viable challengers—in these race? And it's just difficult to parse that out. The truth is, I don't know. I mean all else equal I suppose it's going to have a positive effect on turnout if people identify with the candidate and are excited about the candidate. I just don't know how big of a push factor that is compared to say, hey this is a really competitive race and I'm upset about one party or the other and I'm going to turn out because of that.
Sarah Edwards: [00:22:19] So will young people vote? Honestly it's up to you, listening. If you're still on the fence, here's some advice from our guests.
Joshua Dyck: [00:22:28] It's a great privilege and a great responsibility to vote. It's something to take seriously. I also find voting to be to be fun that's something you can kind of throw yourself into, learn about and it's something that you have that really no one can take away from you.
Buffy Wicks: [00:22:55] I love voting. I get really excited about it. I've never missed an election in my entire life. I think, just dive in you know, especially in California where you've got all these ballot measures. There's so much to vote on. It can kind of feel overwhelming sometimes. But I strongly recommend absentee voting, mail-in ballot because especially with such a long ballot, having the time that you can sit on your kitchen table or sit on your couch with your computer and research the issues and research the candidates is very, very helpful.
Doing it at the booth is difficult; if you're like, There's a kajillion ballot measures and all these things going on, right. So I strongly recommend just tactically doing it that way. But I think diving in and really having a good understanding and be invested in it. Start following the campaigns if you haven't already. Start picking a horse. Get engaged in campaigns or issues. Follow along. To me, it's a very exciting time. And that engagement will set folks on a lifelong path of being civically engaged.
Max Lubin: [00:23:53] Voting in 2018 is largely an act of courage. To a first-time voter I would say, your vote matters, your voice matters. And there are lots of messages out there about if you live in California, if you live in Berkeley, your vote doesn't matter because California is blue in every election. And I think that that's not even close to a fair representation of how our civic process and our democracy works. And so I would talk to that person about who their city council person is, who the state assembly person is, about the policies, whether that's college affordability, free college, debt-free college, for the environment or police brutality.
What are those issues that that person cares about? And who are the people that they could vote for or what are the ballot measures that they could vote for that can affect change along those lines? But first and most important is for each and every single one of us to remember that our vote matters and our vote can be the deciding vote in any election. And when we start there, then when you know it's election day and there's a long line of polls where you can't find your mail in ballot or you don't know where to buy stamps or all of the myriad reasons why people give up for not voting when those come up instead of going to think no my vote might be the deciding factor here for the state of my campus, for my community, for our country. And that you know that's why I need to make sure I actually do.
Sarah Edwards: [00:25:25] And the most important thing to do right now.
Sarah Anzia: [00:25:28] Make sure you're registered because if you're not registered you lose the option in most states almost all states of participating. Nothing's worse than getting to Election Day and wishing you could participate and realizing you missed that boat.
Sarah Edwards: [00:25:42] So make sure you register to vote today. California's voter registration deadline is October 22nd. You can register online at registertovote.ca.gov. You also can check your registration status online. Talk Policy To Me is a production of UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy and the Berkeley Institute for the Future of Young Americans. For show notes, visit us at talkpolicytome.org. That will also have the links to check your voter registration music heard on today's episode by Patmos team. Talk Policy To Me's executive producers are Bora Reed and Sarah Swanbeck. Michael Quiroz is our sound engineer. I'm Sarah Edwards. See you next time.
Sarah Edwards: [00:26:54] Let's check my voter registration status. So we're going to voterstatus.sos.ca.gov. Okay, it wants my first name and my last name and my driver's license number, last four of my social, and my date of birth. And here it is, it has my address, it has my party preference. I'm registered to vote in Alameda County as a permanent vote by mail voter. That took literally less than five minutes.