Early Voting – Where Were the Young Voters?

Democratic Candidates for Countywide office

Election day is Thursday. Its the last day to vote. I you’re a young voter, this is your chance to prove some people wrong.

A lot of insights that can be drawn from who’s already voted. Young voters (those under 30) have been taking some heat for turnout in the Early Voting period.

But the answer to why young voters have underperformed their registration numbers is more complicated than some of the answers.

Honestly, there are a lot of reasons why young voters don’t participate in local elections.

Today, I’ll look at some of those reasons.

First, The Data

David Bell @bellmemphis posted the following analysis of voting ages on Twitter yesterday:

This is really similar to what I found, though I used a slightly different range than he did.

Age Total Early Votes Participation Registration Difference
<30 5110 5.9% 18.1% -12.2%
30-45 10343 12.0% 25.7% -13.7%
45-60 24946 29.0 26.4% 2.6%
60-75 34222 40% 21.5% 18.5%
>75 11182 13% 8.2% 4.8%

I used this different range to level out the ranges more. Each one is about 15 years (rounded to the nearest 5).

Looking at the numbers above, its easy to get hung up on the fact that young voters turned out at about half the percentage of their nearest cohort. But truth be told, the difference between participation & registration for young voters and the next level up is pretty similar.

Even the third quintile is just barely performing above their registration level.

This trend holds up pretty well in past August elections going back to 2010.

Its not until you get to the older voters, those 60 and older, that you start to see a real difference between registration and participation. Most of those voters have been voting for decades. They’re in the habit, and they may have more time to do so.

And really, that’s one way its kind of unfair to beat up young voters for not participating in elections, especially local ones. There’s less press brouhaha about local elections. Chances are, as a newer voter, unless you’ve been an always voter, or were the child of one, you might not even know its happening.

Voter Education

Young voters have a lot of barriers to voting, especially in local elections. The biggest is voter education.

Voters who just got registered, might not know much about local politics. They might be voting in a local election for the first time.

If their parents aren’t regular voters, they might not see the value in voting in local elections. In those cases, getting these young voters to the polls for an election that they don’t know much about, and their parents don’t either, is really hard.

This is complicated by the media environment, and the media consumption of young voters.

Maybe they don’t read their local papers, or watch the local news. National coverage is more available and generally easier to consume because of the volume of coverage. That’s why most young voters get their feet wet in national (read November) elections.

Young voters also aren’t generally as established in the community. More often than not they don’t own property, or have children in schools. These are pretty big predictors of involvement.

Even if they check those two boxes, voting might not be as convenient as we older folks think it is. And if you don’t consume local media, you might not even know when you can vote in an election…unless you happen to pass by an early voting site.

Its easy for us older voters to become scolds, telling these young voters they need to get involved. But honestly, most of the folks I knew back in my 20’s didn’t vote because their lives were just getting started. And all the stuff it takes to help get that life started can be overwhelming. Voting is just one more alien terrain to navigate.

When you add the lack of connection, or investment, or even peer group engagement. Its a recipe for not voting. Pure and simple.

Voter Contact

I voted the first day of early voting. This has not stopped the steady parade of mailers from candidates (even though that’s a terrible waste of their limited campaign resources).

But there are lots of folks who never get campaign mail. And that’s because they don’t vote in that kind of election.

Here’s an example: If you’re a candidate, and you’re trying to get the biggest bang for your advertising dollar, are you going to reach out to someone who doesn’t vote in the month/kind of your election, or someone who does?

Chances are, you’ll reach out to someone who does. Because, especially in primaries, if you know they vote regularly, and vote in your party, you know there’s a good chance they’ll pull the lever for you.

But young voters haven’t been on the voter roles long enough to rate in that kind of world.

If you’re a candidate trying to get the biggest bang for your buck, you might just miss that first time voter when you narrow your mail list to your budget.

It sucks, because it also hurts voter education. But folks don’t pull petitions to lose (generally). And if you don’t think someone’s going to turn out, you probably aren’t going to invest the money to send them mail.

Political parties could help by reaching out to new voters regularly, but they don’t do it.

So, what ends up happening from this strategy is candidates have an ever smaller universe of voters to pull from.

This is bad for candidates and voters. But its also the reality of our current political system. If you want to get contacted, you better vote.

Casual Voters

Another challenge is “casual” or “November” voters. I learned about this in spades back in 2011/2012 when I ran for County Commission.

Casual voters only vote in November. They only really pay attention to national news. They vote their issues, and those issues are generally limited to one or two.

This may sound like a  judgemental assessment, and it is. But its hard for someone who sees an area that voted one way in November to get their mind around the fact that they might not vote that way in August, May, October, or March.

And that’s because casual voters, which includes a lot of young voters, vote their issues, and their issues only. When it gets too complicated, they’ll probably check out.

Back in 2012 I spent 6 months canvassing 5 days a week and knocked on nearly 10,000 doors in the old District 1. That district stretched from Midtown to Forest Hill Irene, and Southern to Raleigh LaGrange. It was over 150,000 voters.

There was no way I could contact them all. It was also a Republican district, so I had to contact as many Democrats as possible.

I also knew that turnout had been bad in that district. So I targeted precinct that voted overwhelmingly Democratic in November to try and drive turnout.

I hit my target. But didn’t account for higher turnout in GOP precincts because of my efforts.


So it worked, but it didn’t.

With a few exceptions in Shelby County, no districts, be they County, State or Federal, are close enough to flip D to R or R to D.

That’s how they were designed.

But in those few exceptions, if you can harness those casual voters, and get some flippers, you have a chance.

It just doesn’t happen much. And that leads to less contact for casual voters in August.


I could write another 3000 words on this topic, but I think the point is made. We have low turnout generally, because we keep asking the same people to vote. And we have a low number of young voters because we don’t know enough about them to ask them to vote.

Its not that young voters don’t care. Its that they don’t know.

And its a big ole “shame on us” for us older voters that they don’t.

If you want more young people to vote, you need to reach out to your kids and your kids’ friends. Not in some weird dad way, but in a real mentor/friend way. Talk to them about what’ s important to them. Explain to them why its important to you.

Maybe you’ll help them catch the civic duty bug.

Hell, organize an early voting party and ride up to the polls with them. Voting is weird if you’ve never done it.

They’ll decide who they vote for for themselves.

But just for good measure…have plenty of signs out there in the yard to help them decide.

One Reply to “Early Voting – Where Were the Young Voters?”

  1. Interesting post. Why people who are registered to vote don’t vote is one of those things that boggles my mind and I don’t think there are any easy answers. I always vote (well … I think there was one special election that I missed when I was in my teens) but I can’t explain why I’m like that. It isn’t because of my parents. My mom votes but has never stressed its importance and my dad has never voted. Local Democrats should look at reaching out to potential younger voters to get them engaged and informed. My wife and I do what we can by asking people if they have voted while early voting is in swing and we make a point of going out to eat on the day that we vote so as many people see us with our “I voted” stickers on our shirts as possible. These are small things but smalls things add up and if we only remind one person to vote, then it was worth it.

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