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Increasing the Youth Vote: How Older Voters Can Help

As someone who blogs about the journey of adulthood, I’m often asked by peers how to find meaning  in the second half of life. “Volunteer,” I tell them. “It’s good for your mental and physical health.” It also helps you to tap into a greater sense of purpose beyond yourself.

One volunteering initiative that’s really called my name of late is  Senior to Senior, which connects senior citizens in America with seniors (final year students) in High School to help them register to vote. Whether through personal letters, videos, or face-to-face engagement, long-time voters share stories to inspire and motivate young people to register to vote and begin a lifetime of civic engagement.

I spend a great deal of my free time trying to get Americans living overseas to vote. So I’m all about voter registration drives. But nowhere is this mission more critical in the United States than for young voters aged 18 to 29. To be sure, voting by this demographic shot up during the 2020 presidential elections, rising by 13  percentage points from 2016. This was one of the highest rates of youth electoral participation since the voting age was lowered to 18 in America back in 1971.

But there are but troubling signs ahead. A national poll released by The Harvard Kennedy Schools Institute of Politics  in April of this year indicates that 18-to-29-year-olds are on track to match 2018’s record-breaking youth turnout in a midterm election this coming November. But there has also been a sharp increase in youth believing that “political involvement rarely has tangible results” (36%), their vote “doesn’t make a difference” (42%) and agreement that “politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges our country is facing” (56%).

Nor is this problem confined to the United States.  A 2020 New York Times analysis of turnout for the most recent national general elections for heads of government in two dozen countries revealed that the general population’s voting rate exceeds the voting rate for young people in every single one of them.

The good news is that in places where more older people vote, more younger people vote, too. But voting, like many things, is a habit.  So if we want younger voters to vote across their lifespan, we need to inculcate this habit from a young age.

The Centre for Information and Learning on Civic Engagement at Tufts University (CIRCLE) believes that 18- and 19-year-olds are a pivotal target for this habit formation. They are, after all, the newest eligible voters. So their electoral participation, or lack thereof, can provide a window into how well—and how equitably—we are preparing and priming youth to participate in democracy.

Which brings us back to Senior to Senior. Rules and procedures governing voting in the United States are highly decentralised, and can be very complex. So we need mobilization efforts that lead first-time voters through steps like how a ballot works, what’s on it and how to fill it out, not to mention where to go to cast a vote, what to do when you get there and how local deadlines work. Just this month, CIRCLE released a new report showing that comprehensive non-partisan teaching about elections, include key civic skills like media literacy, can help students develop their voice and power as future voters, which can then s spill over into other areas of civic life.

The pandemic has highlighted the need for stronger intergenerational connections. But building more intergenerational communities will depend in part on how good we are at demonstrating the value of new innovative schemes for age integration. We’ve already seen the promise of housing that spans different age cohorts. I can’t think of a better space to continue to forge bonds across generations than voting.

About the Author

Delia Lloyd is a Visiting Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. A seasoned writer and editor, she worked for a decade in radio, print and online journalism. Her reporting and commentary have been featured on outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian and The BBC World Service. 


Opinions of the blogger is their own and not endorsed by the Institute

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