At the Polls: How Do We Get Young People to Vote? (ep. 4)

October 6, 2020
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American voting rates have hovered in the mid-50s for most of recent history. As these things go, that is not great. But it’s even worse with younger voters. In the 2014 midterms, less than 20 percent of voters under 30 cast a ballot. We saw a shift in the 2018 midterms and now the question is how do we sustain the influx of young voters?

As of this year, millennials and Gen Z make up approximately 37% of the national electorate. The full participation of America’s younger voters could radically shift the political landscape. Michael McDonald, professor of Political Science at the University of Florida, and David Hogg, March For Our Lives Co-Founder and Board Member, join to discuss.

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“The White House, the Congress, the prospect of change.”
“The importance of each and every vote.”
“Protect and to preserve our voter system.”

[00:00:07] From the ACLU, this is At the Polls. A special miniseries on… you guessed it: voting. I’m Molly McGrath, a voting rights lawyer and organizer and your host for this series.

“The right to vote of all of our young people...”
“Belongs to you.”
“The machinery of democracy should work for everyone, everywhere.”

[00:00:29] This week we’ll be answering the question:

What does it take to get younger voters to the polls?

And stay tuned, at the end of the episode we’ll help you figure out how to make sure that your mail-in ballot is counted.

Okay so are you ready folks? I’m about to blow your mind. In an election, if you want to win, you've got to get people to vote for you.

NAT SOUND: Tah-dah!

I know, right?

“I hope every American will turn out and vote. Every American, every member of his family. I want to show the world how strongly we believe in democracy”

[00:01:03] But getting everyone to the polls – particularly certain age groups – has eluded many candidates and organizers. And it’s not for a lack of trying...

MADONNA: “What are you looking at? Do I look like someone who has never voted before?”

“Vote baby vote, are you registered baby?”
“What are you doing, you're just sitting there?”

[00:01:29] American voting rates have hovered in the mid-50s for most of recent history. As these things go, that is not great. But it’s even worse with younger voters. In the 2014 midterms, less than 20 percent of voters under 30 cast a ballot.

Our guest Michael McDonald studies voter turnout at the University of Florida where he’s been tallying election participation for decades.

[00:01:57] What we're looking at right now, I think, for the 2020 general election, is a turnout rate that could be as high as 65 percent. And if we do reach that level, then you have to go all the way back to 1908 to see a turnout rate as high as 65 percent.

[00:02:17] Can you talk a little bit about, you know, what high turnout means? Is this inherently a good thing for one party or one candidate?

[00:02:25] One way to think about turnout is that we're on the same boat. And when turnout rates rise, the boat rises. And turnout rates tend to go up for everybody, So in 2018, for example, we saw a huge turnout increase for younger voters compared to 2014. And we did see an increase for older voters as well, but it was not as much as that increase as we saw for younger voters.

in the last five, six years or so, what we might normally have thought of as just generically that any increase in turnout is likely going to help the Democrats. Now, we're in a different world where the nonvoters are pretty much balanced between younger voters and persons of color. And then these lower education whites who live predominantly in rural areas.

[00:03:13] Here at the ACLU, we want more people to vote. Full stop. That’s how this democracy thing works.

Mike, how much would it matter if young people did show up?

[00:03:25] we're at the point now where the millennials make up the largest share of the eligible voters. But they're not making the largest share of the voters. So yeah, if younger voters if they would just show up to vote, they would change our politics. But they don't. The younger you are, the less likely you are to vote. The older you are, the more likely you are to vote. And it's one of the most enduring features of American politics when you look at voting behavior.

When I say younger voters, I'm not talking about college students. By the way, college students, their turnout rates look like turnout rates for middle aged people. What I'm really talking about is the younger voters who aren't in college, who are working multiple jobs, who are just trying to scrape by. Voting isn’t the most important thing in their life. They're just trying to make ends meet and get by.

[00:04:10] So what can be done to attract the elusive young voter? Well, many have tried.

JOHN CENA: “This is John Cena from the WWE. Remember to smack down your vote to rock the election in November.”

“Sixty-nine the voter. Boomers have always been on top.”
“But we need to go down on history.”
“Mmm, in history.”

[00:04:31] OK. Let’s turn to a bona fide youth to find out how we might get today’s Zoomers to turn up this November.

David Hogg was a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, during the school shooting that claimed 17 lives in 2018.

DAVID HOGG: “First-time voters show up 18 percent of the time in midterm elections. Not anymore. 96 people die every day from guns in our country, yet most representatives have no public stance on guns, and to that we say no more.”

[00:05:10] Today, he’s a college student, remotely, at Harvard. Hey, David. Thanks so much for joining us today.

[00:05:16] Thanks for having me on, Molly.

[00:05:18] Each generation has, you know, a little bit of their own story. And one thing that seems to be consistent, it was when I was, you know, under 30, I'm not under 30 anymore, by the way. But when I was under 30, you know, young people can determine this election. What's your sense of what the impact of young voters is going to be?

[00:05:37] I think we could absolutely change the country completely. You know, I don't know if it necessarily happened in just this election, I don't think it would. But I think the combination of, you know, 2018, 2020, 2022 and 2024 and 2026, you know, and up to 2028, we could literally completely overhaul and take over the American political system. You know, if you need a point of hope to look at for why, how voting changes things, you know, in comparison to 2014, youth voter turnout in 2018 nearly doubled from that.

ANCHOR: “There’s been a dramatic surge in the number of young people casting ballots.”
ANCHOR 2: “Nearly and 80 percent increase, 79 percent of youth voter turnout

[00:06:16] As a result of that, I would argue that we weren't the only reason, but we are a major reason why we got a significantly younger Congress that is more representative of young people. We got a Congress that has people like AOC and Ilhan Omar and, you know, the Squad and many amazing candidates at the state and local level.

I’ve been in the halls of Congress walking around. I’ve seen how the power of young people really terrifies these people, and it’s awesome.

[00:06:42] What are some of the issues that you're hearing that turned out young people in 2018 like you talked about? And what are you hearing this year?

[00:06:51] I think there's a lot of us that just don't think that we're going to be better off than our parents at this point. I think, honestly, the biggest enemy is just that kids are really tired and traumatized. You know, this entire generation is traumatized. They've seen school shootings on TV every day. And Black and brown communities especially, that are disproportionately affected by gun violence. And we've seen how our planet is melting in front of our eyes. Literally there were wildfires in California and a week later, the sky over D.C. where I was was orange in the mornings. Like, I went outside and like the sky was literally tinted orange from fires over two thousand miles away, right?. Like, that's terrifying. And, yeah, we just, we literally see our future going up in flames in front of us.

[00:07:35] For a nation of traumatized young people, living with their parents instead of in college dorms or doing essential work, breathing through a mask eight hours a day, or taking care of family members -- finding the motivation to vote could be tough.

So what might cut through the malaise?

[00:07:54] We need voting to be a cultural phenomenon. Part of it, too, is, I mean, I don't know about, necessarily, political advertising or anything, but I think just kids, you know, young people talking about it on social media. That is what is at the core of all political power, in my view, is culture. It's art. It's music.

You know, Ariana Grande posted about registering to vote with a March link, you know, in 2018 and it shut down our Web site for, like, I don't know, I think was like five hours or something because so many people were trying to register to vote. We saw Taylor Swift talked about the importance of voting,

TAYLOR SWIFT:“ This award and every single award given out tonight were voted on by the people, and you know what else is voted on by the people is the midterm elections on November 6th get out and vote. I love you guys “

[00:07:54] You know, it may seem almost, like, surface level, but I do think it really has an impact on getting these young people out to vote. I think it has a huge one, because really at that core, political power and political change is cultural change.

That's why I think when we see cultural change, like we've seen over the summer around the issues of racial justice and so many other things, politicians start to get really scared and start to do something because they realize that culture is shifting faster than politics. When that happens, things actually tend to change.

ROCK THE VOTE ADVERTISEMENT: “What needs to be popular is getting y’all out there to vote, you know what I’m saying”
MARK WAHLBERG, ROCK THE VOTE: “Man, we could make a crazy difference, as a matter of fact, we could start a revolution. And we could rock the vote.”
ROCK THE VOTE ADVERTISEMENT: “Don’t let the few rule the many. Rock the vote!”
NAT SOUND: Guitar riff

[00:09:22] And, you know, I'm old enough to remember some of these Rock the Vote campaigns MTV did. When have young voters showed up at some of the highest rates?

[00:09:30] You know, in ‘92, we had a very high turnout election, a three-way race. We had Ross Perot in the mix.

ROSS PEROT: “Just for the record, I don’t have any spin doctors. I don’t have any speech writers. It probably shows.”
ANCHOR: “Bill Clinton with a five point spread. Ross Perot holding steady at 18, a very impressive showing for him tonight.”

[00:09:50] It was an interesting election. That interest will drive turnout. And when we get high turnout elections, we tend to get higher turnout for younger groups disproportionately,

So after 1992, Rock the Vote’s like we won, we did it. We solve the youth turnout problem. But just four years later, we had 1996, which was one of the lowest turnout rates that we've had over the last hundred years. And youth turnout cratered. But the thing was about those Rock the Vote campaigns, was they were largely mass-based. They were more celebrity oriented. They were more advertising oriented.

ROCK THE VOTE ADVERTISEMENT: “What’s up this is Chuck talking to you about the real power, the power that you have to exercise your right to vote and let them represent you. Do your thing, vote.”

[00:10:38] You might even, a cynical person could say that, well, this really wasn't about mobilizing people. It was wrapping a message, marketing message around turnout. And what you know, to their credit, was Rock the Vote did was they realized that mass based advertising has its place.

But it's really that really face-to-face or networking, which is what we have to do in 2020, is that networking that you do where people talk to other people and they talk to a trusted source. So, a young person talking to a young person, that's going to be much more effective at turning out people than an old person talking to a young person, or even better yet, a friend talking to a friend or a family member talking to a family member. Those are the strongest messages that can drive higher turnout.

[00:11:32] So, keep it personal, people. And remember your audience. And what would you say, you know, to some folks and young people who want to get engaged and help increase turnout in their community? What, what would your advice for them be?

[00:11:44] If there's anything that anyone does from this it's one: Make sure that you vote if you have the privilege of doing so. Because right now, it is not a right that everybody gets to have in the United States, which I fundamentally disagree with. But two make sure that, you know, get another friend and make a plan to vote to ensure that you are going to actually vote. Also, if possible, if you're a young person and you are not, you know, immunocompromised, I would encourage you to vote in person, if at all possible. Specifically by doing that to make sure that your vote is absolutely counted, no matter what.

You know, I'll tell you what's not going to get young people out to vote is older people telling us, oh, it's your civic duty, you know, it's important. Yeah, those things are true. But really, what I think is the most effective thing is every young person that listens to this, every young person that cares, talking about, like, this is really bad. Because this election isn’t going to solve anything, but it's a damn good place to start and stop it from getting a hell of a lot worse.

[00:12:40] So, young voters have the numbers to really affect the results of elections, and the current generation of young voters is more engaged than ever before. And it makes sense. It’s their future, and they know it.

DAVID HOGG SPEECH: “When people try to suppress your vote, and there are people who stand against you because you are too young, we say no more.”
NAT SOUND: Cheering

[00:13:08] We’ve been getting a lot of questions about mail-in ballots, how to fill them out, and how to send them in. So, we thought we would just answer them all with a little audio demonstration —

First, it’s important to remember that laws and requirements for voting by mail are different from state to state -- so how you fill out your ballot and what you need to do could be very different from a friend or relative in another state. So wherever you are, make sure you read the instructions for your state carefully. Here’s some points to look out for:

Writing utensil: This is not the time to get creative. Many states requires that you use a blue or black pen to fill out your ballot

Make sure to sign your ballot envelope in every place that asks for the voter’s signature. Now, some states have their own additional requirements for absentee ballots -- this could be requiring ballots to be returned in multiple envelopes -- like Pennsylvania, or it could be requiring a witness to sign your ballot envelope.

For returning your ballot, check out the options in your state -- this could be a drop-off box or returning it to your local election official -- or you can always return it through the mail! Just know the deadline to return the ballot in your state, and these are different from state to state--so make sure your plan gets it back in time for your state. If you’re mailing your ballot, don’t forget to check if your state requires postage.

And remember: Vote like your rights depend on it.

To find out more about the specific requirements in your state, visit Thanks so much to Michael McDonald and David Hogg for joining us this week. Until next time, look up your state’s vote by mail requirements!

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