A New Generation of Young Voters Emerges

Why are young Americans less likely than other age groups to vote, and how are some young people working to get more of their peers to the polls?

Last Updated: October 31, 2018

Until 1971, Americans as young as 18 years old could be drafted into the military and sent to fight in the increasingly controversial war in Vietnam, but they could not vote. That year, the Twenty-Sixth Amendment was ratified, addressing the gap between draft eligibility and the right to vote by lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. But since then, young people have become less and less likely to vote.

2018's midterm elections, which typically see lower overall turnout than presidential elections (especially among young people), provide an opportunity to examine why young people often do not exercise their right to vote and to acknowledge efforts by young people to spark greater participation.

According to Pew Research Center, younger generations (including Generation X, millennials, and post-millennials) now make up the majority of eligible voters. The question is, will they be the majority of actual voters? If past voting patterns by millennials (people born in the 1980s and 1990s) and their older siblings and cousins are reliable indicators, they will not. As observed in a recent CNN editorial by Facing History President and CEO, Roger Brooks, “About 22 million new voters—now high school juniors and seniors with more diversity than previous generations—will be 18 by the 2020 presidential election. And younger voters have stayed away from the polls in the past.”

But many young people are working to reverse this trend. There is a growing youth-led movement to inspire their peers to go to the polls and assert their power into the American electorate. The following teaching ideas provide resources and activities to spark an ongoing discussion in your class about why so many young eligible voters choose not to vote and what can be done to motivate them to do so.

In addition to the ideas shared here, consider using activities from Facing History’s Voting Rights and the Midterm Elections teaching idea to help your students understand the increasing number of obstacles being erected to prevent many voters of all age groups from going to the polls.

Reflecting: Who Has the Power in America’s Elections?

Remind students that the Twenty-Sixth Amendment (enacted in 1971) establishes the national voting age at 18 and prohibits states from using any other age limit to deny citizens’ right to vote. Use the Think, Pair, Share strategy to give students the opportunity to respond to and discuss the following prompt:

Which age groups do you think are most likely to vote? Which age groups do you think are least likely? Explain your thinking in both cases.

Visualizing the Electorate: Who Votes More? Who Votes Less?

Explore voting trends in US midterm elections by projecting or providing students copies of the chart Historical Voting Rates in Congressional Elections by Age: 1978 to 2014 (page 5 of the US Census Bureau report Who Votes?).

Prompt students to analyze the information and discuss the following questions: Which age group, historically, has the highest voter turnout in midterm elections? Which one has the lowest? How might you try to explain the difference in voter turnout represented in the graph? Do you think politicians cultivate their campaigns and shape their policy agenda to reach those Americans who turn out to vote? How?

Analyze the data of “undermobilized” (registered but non-voting) youth by projecting or providing copies of The Center for Information & Research On Civic Learning and Engagement’s Youth Reasons for Not Voting in 2016 Election, by College Experience and Youth Reasons for Not Voting in 2016 Election, by Race and Ethnicity.

Use as many of the following questions as time permits to examine why millions of young people (ages 18–29) register but decide not to vote on election day:

  • What reasons did young people cite for not voting on election day? Did responses vary because of race or education?
  • Why might logistical challenges (such as access to transportation or time conflicts) be particularly common for young people who are studying or working?
  • Many respondents identified they did not like the candidates running or feel invested in the issues being debated. What does this indicate about the major parties’ connections to young people’s concerns?
  • Do you think people have a responsibility to vote even when the candidates do not inspire them?
  • Can you identify with any of the explanations for not voting? What recommendations might you provide to remedy these obstacles?

Energizing Young Voters: Will 2018 and Future Elections Mark a Change in Younger Voter Turnout?

Below is a list of 2018 sources describing a variety of initiatives underway to encourage young people to vote. Share as many sources with your students as time permits:

Allow students time to process their reactions and provide space for reflection with the Graffiti Boards teaching strategy. Invite students to contemplate:

  • Will these initiatives help young people to turn out and vote? Do you find them effective?
  • How do you see yourself participating in future elections? What will motivate you to participate?
  • What other actions or initiatives would you recommend to energize youth voter turnout?


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