In the United States, each election cycle reminds us that younger voters vote at much lower rates than their older counterparts. This discrepancy is often chalked up to apathy or lack of interest in politics among younger voters. In their new book, John B. Holbein
and D. Sunshine Hillygus
analyze this conventional explanation along with the political science literature about voting behavior among different age cohorts. What they find is a more complex picture of contemporary young voters, and this complex picture is the focus of their new book, Making Young Voters: Converting Civic Attitudes into Action
(Cambridge University Press, 2020).
Holbein and Hillygus find that younger citizens (18-29 year old) are quite interested in politics and engaged in various dimensions of politics, but that voting, because of the complex process for registering and voting in the United States, makes it more difficult for younger voters to develop this habit and pursue it. Holbein and Hillygus’ analysis of the data refutes the oft-repeated commentary that younger voters are apathetic. In fact, Making Young Voters
demonstrates that today, young voters are more concerned with politics than young voters of the past. But despite this greater interest, youth voting remains low. Making Young Voters
argues that the true obstacles to youth voting are lack of experience, and less fully formed noncognitive skills, coupled with the high hurdles of the voting process itself, including the requirements to register to vote, and the differing requirements for actual voting, as well as the many elections that Americans face every year. Thus, some of disconnect between interest and follow through is on the voters themselves, but a sizeable issue, according to wealth and diversity of data that Holbein and Hillygus explore, is the complexity of the voting process in the United States.
Holbein and Hillygus explain that younger voters are not accustomed to the act of voting and therefore struggle to follow through on their intention to vote. This can be seen in voter registration. Younger voters either forget to register or they are hesitant to register because they have never done it before, and therefore it is not a habit for them the way it is for older voters. Additionally, Holbein and Hillygus note that previous scholarship on youth voting focused on cognitive skills. Instead, Making Young Voters
emphasizes the link between voting and noncognitive skills. Holbein and Hillygus assert that younger voters’ noncognitive skills are less developed. This also contributes to lower turnout among younger voters. Finally, Making Young Voters
considers what could be done to increase youth voter turnout. The latter part of the book includes ideas to rethink civics classes and education to highlight how to register and how to vote so as to familiarize younger voters to the process itself. Holbein and Hillygus also suggest creating more pathways to registration such as same-day registration which allows voters to register at their polling place on the day of an election. Making Young Voters
brings together approaches from political science, education, and psychology to explain what is standing in the way of more young people actually casting ballots in American elections. And what can be changed to make this process less daunting.
Adam Liebell-McLean assisted with this podcast.
Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics
(University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America
(Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).