How to Increase Youth Participation in Politics

Students walking on college campus: how to increase youth participation in politics.

The data is clear: Young people are less likely to participate in politics. Voters between 18 and 29 are also less likely to donate to political campaigns than older people. Yet, youth participation in politics matters, and it is something that everyone should care about.

Young people are, undeniably, the future of our country. For political campaigns, PACs, and public advocacy organizations, increased youth participation can help everyone achieve bigger and better goals. Read on for an overview of the key things to know about youth participation in politics along with strategies for getting them more involved.

Background: Voting Turnout Rates Are Correlated With Age

Are young people really less likely to participate in politics? The answer is a fairly straightforward “yes.” All of the data points towards the same conclusion. Older people tend to be more politically engaged, while younger people as a group—those under 25 or 30 depending on your definition—tend to be especially disengaged from politics.

To illustrate the gap, consider the voter turnout rates by age for the 2020 presidential election. The United States Census Bureau reports that “overall, voter turnout increased as age increased.” The only exception to the trend was that voters 75 years and older (who had a slightly lower turnout rate than voters ages 65 to 74). Here is the official data from the 2020 presidential election:

  • Voter Turnout (Ages 18 to 24): 4 percent
  • Voter Turnout (Ages 65 to 74): 0 percent

Notably, voting turnout rates for voters between those two age groups gradually increased with age. The United States Census Bureau found that voters between the ages of 25 and 34 had the second lowest turnout rate for the 2020 federal election. Voter turnout rate slightly increased for voters 35 to 44. It continued to increase until voters reached the 65 to 74 age range. At this point, voters frequently level off. The data is relatively consistent from election to election. Youth are simply less likely to vote in an election.

Older Voters Are More Likely to Donate to Political Campaigns

Not only are older voters more likely to cast a vote in an election, but they are also more likely to donate to political campaigns and political causes. According to data from the Pew Research Center, only nine percent of people ages 18 to 29 made a political donation in the most recent election cycle. In contrast, 32 percent of people, ages 65 and older, made a political donation over the same period.

The Good News: Youth Participation in Politics Is On the Rise in the U.S.

For those who are interested in connecting with younger voters and encouraging youth participation in politics, the data can be somewhat discouraging. However, there is good news: Youth participation in elections and public affairs has been gradually rising in the United States. As a reference example, here is the youth voter turnout (18 to 29) for presidential elections since 1996:

  • 1996: 6 percent.
  • 2000: 3 percent.
  • 2004: 0 percent.
  • 2008: 1 percent.
  • 2012: 0 percent.
  • 2016: 0 percent.
  • 2020: 0 percent.

As you can see, the 2020 election saw the highest turnout rate with the Democratic ticket of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and the Republican ticket of Donald Trump and Mike Pence.

The second highest turnout rate was the 2008 Democratic ticket of Barack Obama and Joe Biden, and the Republican ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin.

Why did youth participation increase for these two elections?

  1. Voters were highly passionate about issues that mattered to them;
  2. Voters could see two clearly divergent paths based on the outcome of the election; and
  3. Voters truly believed their vote would make a difference.

A Global Issue—Union Nations (U.N.) Is Promoting Youth Participation in Politics

Low levels of youth participation in politics are by no means an American phenomenon. It is an area of concern throughout the globe—so much so that the United Nations (U.N.) has put a tremendous amount of resources into encouraging countries around the world to get youth involved in politics and public policy. Here are some of the most notable highlights of a report on youth participation in politics from the Union Nations.

Young Adults Are Underrepresented Among Elected Officials

The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (U.N.D.E.S.A.) emphasizes that young adults (30 and younger) are significantly underrepresented among election officials worldwide. This is partially a function of law. In many countries, you have to be a certain age to serve as an elected representative. Take the United States as an example. You have to be 25 years old to be in the House of Representatives, 30 years old to be in the U.S. Senate, and 35 years old to run for President of the United States. Many countries have similar regulations in place. While people between the ages of 18 and 30 make up around 20 percent of the global population, they make up fewer than 2 percent of elected officials.

Survey Data Indicates Youth Are Discouraged About Having Their Voice Heard

Why are young people less likely to vote in elections and participate in politics more broadly? There are undoubtedly many complex reasons. At the same time, the U.N. cites survey data showing that the majority of young adults from across 186 different countries report that they believe that they have “limited opportunities for effective participation in decision-making processes.” In other words, a lot of young people are discouraged from political participation because they do not feel like they have a real opportunity for their voices to be heard.

Youth Participation Can Increase (Success Stories)

Although the U.N. highlights the global problem of low levels of youth participation in politics, the agency also notes that change is possible. It cites several success stories from all around the world, including in places like Nigeria, Bangladesh, Moldova, and Jordan. While different strategies may work effectively for different goals, the U.N. notes that getting young people involved in the political process early is perhaps the most effective way to turn them into consistent voters and active long-term political participants.

4 Strategies for Increasing Youth Participation in Politics and Public Policy

Of course, the societal issue of youth participation in politics is not something that any one party can solve. It is a long-term matter that will require gradual change. At the same time, there are strategies that election campaigns, political action committees (PACs), Super PACS, and grassroots political advocacy organizations can use to better spread their message to young people. An effective strategy to engage with young people can make a big difference. Here are four actionable strategies for increasing youth participation in politics and public affairs:

1. Listen to Young People

As simple as it is, listening is one of the best ways to reach young people and encourage youth participation in politics. As noted previously, many teenagers and young adults are dissuaded from political participation. In other words, they feel unheard and unimportant. You can help change that by listening to their concerns and making an effort to address them. Of course, this does not mean that you have to agree with everything that they say, but it does mean that you should at least hear them out and make an active effort to listen to what they have to say and make them feel heard.

2. Empower Young Leaders

Empowering young leaders is another important step for campaigns and political organizations that want to better engage with the youth. Young adults are, by definition, the next generation of leaders. Organizations should also consider ways to increase youth empowerment within their own structures. One way to do this is to create more opportunities for youth to take on leadership roles. This can be done by providing training and resources that focus on leadership development and a wide range of other matters.

3. Proactively Engage

Young people are less likely to vote, less likely to donate, and less likely to participate in politics more broadly. There is no dispute on the data. At the same time, that can become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Too many campaigns and political advocacy groups “write off” young people. You need to proactively engage with young voters. Among other things, this means putting real resources into reaching young people, listening to their concerns, and developing a strategy that works.

4. Follow-Through With Efforts

Finally, election campaigns, PACs, and grassroots organizations should follow through with their efforts to engage young people. It is a big mistake to make a small effort to reach out to young voters and then forget about them. It is important to follow through with efforts in the entirety of a campaign cycle and beyond.

The structure, needs, and objectives of every campaign and political advocacy group are different. In trying to reach young voters and encourage youth participation in politics, you must have access to accurate, comprehensive political data. Campaigns that are not data-driven are at serious risk of falling behind. With youth turnout and youth political engagement, the right data can make a dramatic difference.

Achieve Your Goals with Data-Driven Campaigns

Increasing youth participation is a never-ending challenge for political campaigns. There is no single solution, but there are best practices you should adopt as part of an organized and disciplined plan to get out the vote. If you can engage youth on the issues they care about, find multiple channels of engagement to communicate with them, and get them to make a clear plan to vote, you will be well-positioned to reap the rewards on Election Day.

At Aristotle, we are proud to be the leader in political data and campaign management technology. With a comprehensive National Voter File and regularly updated voter lists, we help election campaigns and grassroots political advocacy groups better identify and engage with primary voters. If you have any specific questions or concerns about targeting primary voters, our team is here as a resource. Call us now or send us a direct message to find out more about our services.

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