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“I voted” stickers sit on a table inside an early voting site in Chicago, Illinois, on October 1, 2020.
Kamil Krzaczyski/AFP via Getty Images

The often-overlooked reasons why young people don’t vote

Three young people explain the logistical challenges of voting in past elections.

Young people don’t flock to the poll like older Americans do. In 2016, only 46 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted, compared to 71 percent of those over 65; in 2012, those numbers were pretty much the same.

Narratives around the youth vote have long centered around apathy — that young Americans just aren’t showing up, even though elections impact them on issues such as climate change and educational debt. Michelle Obama said on a recent podcast episode, “I understand the people who voted for Trump. The people who didn’t vote at all, the young people, the women, that’s when you think, man, people think this is a game.”

Others insist that young people don’t vote because the candidates offered to them don’t represent their political views. This was a key argument behind Bernie Sanders’s 2020 candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, which was built on the idea of a political revolution of youth voter turnout inspired by his socialist-leaning political agenda. (Youth voter turnout disappointed Sanders in the 2020 primary: “Have we been as successful as I would hope in bringing young people in? The answer is no,” he said.)

But the reality is that most young people are neither apathetic nor ideologically disengaged. They aren’t turning out to vote because their lives are not set up for it.

Young people are attending college, often in a different location from where they grew up. They’re working full-time or part-time while attending school, often at low-wage jobs that can have unstable work schedules. They don’t have access to transportation. They move around a lot, change schools, or study abroad. They don’t know where they’ll be living three months in the future.

“You think about the fact that most 40-year-olds ... have a stable workweek where you kind of know when you’ll fit voting in on that first Tuesday in November,” said Sunshine Hillygus, a political science professor at Duke University who co-wrote a book on young voters, on the EdSurge podcast. “Whereas young people have a far more fluid and unstable schedule and lifestyle.”

Registering to vote — and figuring out where and how to vote — can look easy on paper. But for many young adults, getting clear instructions, along with all the variables that can change at the last minute, is more challenging than you might think. Hillygus suggests reforms that ease the process of voting, such as preregistering young people to vote in high school or when they get their driver’s license at 16, as well as better overall civic education in schools that connect government and politics with teens’ everyday lives.

Vox spoke to three young people who encountered logistical difficulties that prevented or nearly prevented them from voting. All of them wanted to make clear that they and their young peers do want to vote, but that the barriers to making it happen can feel daunting.

“I wondered where my ballot would go, whether it would be mailed back to my address in Atlanta or Shanghai. And my college was in Tennessee, so I had three locations to worry about.”

Angelina Tran, 26, just graduated with a master’s degree in education policy, Georgia

For the last presidential election, which would have been my first time voting for president, I was in Shanghai, China, for a college semester abroad.

I signed up for an absentee ballot when I was home in Atlanta, Georgia. But I didn’t know which address to put, and I think I ended up sending it to the generic study abroad office in Shanghai. It was really confusing. There wasn’t a lot of information on what it’s like to vote when you are living abroad, especially in a country that may have more barriers when it comes to receiving mail from your home country.

I wondered where my ballot would go, whether it would be mailed back to my address in Atlanta or Shanghai. And my college was in Tennessee, so I had three locations to worry about — typical millennial, moving all over the place. I remember calling and asking my mom at home if she received an absentee ballot, but my mom doesn’t speak English so she said no; I wasn’t sure if that was actually the case. I literally was like, “Can I just vote online?”

There was a group of us from across the US all studying abroad. We were really sad when we heard the election results. From my college, there were about 15 of us — I don’t think anyone abroad voted via absentee ballot. China was just confusing, just receiving any mail in general was confusing. The study abroad program, which assigns us to housing, that all wasn’t finalized until late in the process.

It just sucks that I couldn’t vote. There’s definitely a sense of pride and accomplishment when you vote, especially since that was such a historic election — even though Georgia is pretty much conservative, so I knew which way it would go. But I think the idea of voting, just as one person making a difference, was important to me. As soon as I got back to the states, I was voting in local elections because that was so much easier to navigate. But it was disappointing that the absentee ballot abroad was really confusing. I wish there were easier ways for people abroad to vote.

“I requested my absentee ballot months in advance. It never came. ”

Lucas Carroll, 20, college student, Massachusetts

I’m registered to vote in southwest Michigan but go to college in Massachusetts, and in this year’s primary, I requested my absentee ballot months in advance. It never came. I lived with four siblings along with my mom, my aunt, and my little cousin, so it’s kind of a crazy house and I wasn’t sure if it was my fault I never got my ballot or if it got thrown away. This problem is only going to be amplified by a million come November.

I called the clerk and she promised me it was okay to go in and vote in person. I’m not immunocompromised, and I live with people who are generally young and healthy, so I wasn’t too worried, though I did wear gloves and a mask. But I wondered if everybody else would feel just as comfortable to do so.

Courtesy of Lucas Carroll

I was able to end up voting in the primary, but it was really confusing. Especially with the news coming out of Georgia that 1,000 people had voted twice. I question if that’s really what happened or if they requested an absentee ballot that never came and went in person as well.

The coronavirus has made everything a million times more difficult. I called my clerk and I talked to her about that. I mentioned that I was going back to school in the fall, but I have no idea what’s going to happen or if we’ll still even be in school by November or if we’ll be sent home because of an outbreak. She just said, “Don’t worry about it, just let me know where you’ll be by the first week of October.” And I was like, “I have no idea.”

I didn’t even know what my school address was going to be until a couple weeks ago because I was supposed to be studying abroad and that got canceled, so they were waiting to see what opened up before putting me into a new dorm. It wasn’t anybody else’s fault, it was just the logistical nightmares that Covid has caused. But that happened to a bunch of people I know who are still trying to find places to live, on or off campus. All of these barriers that have already been present are being amplified at a time like this. Luckily, it all worked out and I was able to vote.

What really worries me is that all of those students are registering for absentee ballots at their college address. And we’ve already had, what, a dozen colleges who have closed down schools and sent the kids home? Is their first priority really gonna be, “I need to call my clerk and get my address changed”? Or is it gonna be, “Where am I gonna live for the next several months? How am I gonna do school? How am I gonna get all my stuff home?”

This election, everyone I know is really motivated to vote in. In 2018, the conversation was like, “How do I get a stamp? Where should I mail my absentee ballot?” This year it’s like, “I have no idea what’s going on. I don’t even know where to start.” It’s not about apathy. It’s not about having a clear choice in November. It’s all about this situation which has made preexisting roadblocks to voting 10 times more difficult to overcome.

I have friends that are like, “I will make my mom come and drive to pick me up to take me home to vote if I have to. If I have to book a flight to go home, I can’t really afford that, but I will figure it out.” This election is too important to sit out.

“I was registered to vote at my home for the primary, which was about 45 minutes away from my campus, but I didn’t have a car”

Erika Neal, 22, graduate student in California

During the 2016 election, I was a freshman. I had just moved in on campus. There was so much going on. I was a work study student, I was an honors student, I had a full class load. Unfortunately, my school did not close for Election Day, and I had so many tests and assignments that were due that I wasn’t able to figure out how to vote.

I was registered to vote at my home for the primary, which was about 45 minutes away from my campus, but I didn’t have a car to go back home. I didn’t know that you had to re-register to vote in your locality. It was really hard to know where to go for that information as a 17-year-old.

Courtesy of Erika Neal

It’s not that voting wasn’t important to me. It was. But because I already assumed I was registered to vote in Virginia, where my college was, I didn’t realize I had to vote in my home polling place. Making that assumption definitely could have been combated with Google, but also making sure that educational gap is filled by the university, and holding my alma mater accountable for it, has become important to me because some people don’t know this stuff. They don’t know where to look. I didn’t know there was such thing as an election registrar. It really comes down to that gap in education. We have students coming from all kinds of school systems. And at 17 years old, 18 years old, you’re not thinking about four years ahead of you. You’re thinking about now.

I was a full-time student. On top of that, my school is heavily dependent on financial aid, and that includes work study. Freshman year, tuition was a significant expense for me and my family, so I wanted to use as much of that work study money as possible to defer those payments. That was my No. 1 priority.

I was really fortunate to have a work study position that was on campus because I didn’t have transportation. But not having a car made it even harder to try and get home. I would have had to take the train and I didn’t always have time to do that, and my parents didn’t necessarily have time to pick me up from the train station so I could go vote before my polling location closed. That was definitely a hurdle. My priority at the time was my school and my work.

I think not all, but many school systems are failing to connect the importance of civic engagement with our daily lives. For a lot of young people who are getting ready to vote in this election or are just barely too young to vote now, they are starting to see how politics is involved in every single aspect of our lives. So many young people of color are starting to understand the impact that voting can have, especially with Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights, or any other movements going on. We have the power in voting who represents us in these spaces.

When it comes to young people voting, an added hurdle is worrying about having enough money to have a roof over your head. You are considered a young adult, you graduate college, and you just want to make sure you have everything to stay alive — like food, water, and shelter. The cost of living is so expensive. It’s so hard to find time to vote for a lot of people who fit into that demographic.

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