Young Gen Z Voter Wearing Sticker After Voting in Election. Youth vote concept.
Credit: Made360 / Shutterstock
Jonathan L. Wharton

November’s elections demonstrated some interest in younger voters engaging in the midterm races. But as a national 27% average, shouldn’t those under age 30 have a higher voter turnout rate? 

Yes, and no. 

During presidential year races, those 18- to 29-year-olds usually show up at around 40% and in midterm races 25% with 2018 at the recent highest rate at 31%. Local election turnout is far lower at almost single digit percentages. 

Still, one would think election turnout should have been higher especially during contested congressional midterm and state office races. But Americans have to be compelled to vote particularly during non-presidential elections. Nearly 8 million Generation-Z Americans became of voting age since our last election and they will be a significant voting block compared to Baby Boomers in the next few years. 

But there are a variety of reasons why young Americans do not vote. Older voters tend to be more engaged in voting and other civic activities since many more are property owners and have an economic stake in political matters.

Compared to older voters (turnout is nearly double for 50- to 75-year-olds), younger voters are also more transient. Many are in college or new to town. Being in a newer locale, one has to register or re-register to vote as well as follow the issues and candidates for public office. 

In fact, civics education may be limited in public education. For example, in New Jersey, a new law will require middle schoolers to complete a civics course. So, registering to vote is one thing but understanding government is another. 

Beyond education, fewer younger people are registered with a political party. This is critical because party officials engage registered party voters to show up to the polls, to donate and to volunteer for candidates. Since the majority of Americans are unaffiliated voters (and increasingly so among those under age 29), they cannot participate in closed primary elections in many states, including Connecticut.

Some political observers offer that few young people engage in voting because they’re uninformed and uninterested about politics. I would counter that this has been an ongoing issue for generations, but we need to center our attention on educating young Americans about our government, political parties, and candidates. Voter education is essential and it must start before they enter a college classroom like mine or even a high school classroom.

Instead, students should learn about voting and civic education in elementary school and middle school. And civic engagement should also be reinforced at home through political socialization. A basic ritual is to bring children to polling locations so they witness elections firsthand.

As a child, I went with my father to the polls at the senior citizen complex across the street from our house (Interestingly, my West Hartford hometown has some of the highest voter participation rates in our state, even in local elections). Voting was the first thing my father did election morning before going to work. He said it was the best time to do so since other matters may get in the way during the day.

I’ll confess that this month’s election was the first time I voted in the afternoon, as I returned from California that morning. Still, I imagined hearing my father remind me to vote in the morning and being on Pacific Standard Time, I was close enough to it.

Ultimately, civic rituals and civic education can be long lasting and should be taught in school and at home to engage young voters. By doing so, more young voters may turnout in future elections.

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D., is an associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of or any of the author's other employers.