More young people are registered to vote. But will they?
As polls show young voters less likely to cast ballots this year, a voter-engagement project at MSU Denver aims to get students more engaged.
While more young people have become eligible to vote since the 2020 election, they don’t appear to be nearly as motivated to do so, and election analysts are unsure how that group will impact the November election.
Amid the uncertainty, voter-education groups are stepping up efforts to get young people engaged.
“One of the framings we use is ‘It’s not about you; it’s about your community. A small number of votes often decide an issue or a candidate. There are consequences when people don’t show up to vote,’” said Elizabeth Parmelee, Ph.D., associate vice president of Undergraduate Studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver. She directs the grant-funded Voter Engagement Project, which aims to help students better understand the voting process and identify with it.
“If you start to identify with the process of voting and using your vote to make a difference not just for you but for your community, you’ll be more likely to continue voting in the next election,” Parmelee said.
In Colorado, the number of registered voters between ages 18 and 29 has increased 13% over November 2018 registration numbers. Meanwhile, a recent poll shows just 14% of voters ages 18-29 said they would definitely vote this November, compared with the estimated 52% of young Americans who voted in the 2020 elections. The same NPR/Marist poll shows that nearly 70% of Americans feel the country is moving in the wrong direction.
Apathy, political exhaustion and a real or perceived lack of efficacy surrounding issues such as reproduction rights and cost of living are behind the sentiment, said Robert Preuhs, Ph.D., professor of Political Science at MSU Denver.
“In terms of an influx of young voters that will swap out old patterns, it probably won’t materialize with this election,” said Preuhs. “We did see higher young-voter turnout in 2020, but that said, that group still had a lower rate among other demographic groups, and it’s just not clear how it will materialize this year.”
Since the state’s passage of the Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act of 2013, many hurdles to voting, such as waiting in long lines or trying to figure out where to vote, have been eliminated, Preuhs said. However, if someone isn’t inclined to think about politics, even receiving a ballot in the mail may not be enough motivate them to vote, especially if they do not feel it will matter. “At some point,” he said, “there’s a good amount of folks for whom the system is distant.”
To help close that distance, MSU Denver’s Voter Engagement Project enlists the help of seven student ambassadors, who work at “creating a buzz” around the identity of being a voter and generating a sense of community.
They provide nonpartisan education on ballot issues and help students navigate the voting process, whether it’s how to turn in their ballots or register to vote.
“From what I’ve observed, younger people aren’t voting because they don’t know or understand what they’re voting on or they don’t know how or where to vote,” said ambassador Shelly Maddox, a third-year MSU Denver student. “MSU Denver’s campus makes it really easy to vote, but not every school is like that.”
Tips for Student Voters
Visit the Voter Resources page for more information on voter registration, election dates and issues, and ways to engage.
MSU Denver students participate in elections at a particularly high rate. In 2016, the University stood out nationally with the highest percentage of student voter participation at 65.9%. It was also recognized this year for having a highly established action plan.
“Our students are engaged,” Preuhs said. “We see that in classes, and we see it in participation in student organizations. Even when there is lower voter participation overall, we see a sustained energy in our students. It’s a hallmark of our University and the students’ expectations for the future.”
Sociologist Christine Sheikh, Ph.D., faculty lead for MSU Denver’s Voter Engagement Project, acknowledged that there’s discouragement among young people. And in many ways, she said, they’re right.
There is inequality in power, Sheikh said, but not voting only perpetuates that inequality. The Voter Engagement Project doesn’t tell somehow how they should vote or with which party to affiliate, she said. “We just want you to vote,” she said.
Even though voter participation in midterm elections trends lower, Sheikh said the Voter Engagement Project has lasting effects on voting behavior when young people realize their votes can have generational impact, if not an immediate tangible impact.
“When a student says they’re not into politics or voting doesn’t matter, I remind them that politics is one of the main structures to address inequalities in our society,” Sheikh said. “I especially want to see young people step into their power and understand that they have more power than they think they do. If they want to see something happen, they can make that happen. They just have to believe they have the power they really do have.”