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Why Younger Americans Don’t Vote More Often (*No, It’s Not Apathy)

Why don’t more young people vote?

We often hear how younger people are apathetic toward politics or politically disengaged. And while it’s true that they tend to vote at lower rates than older Americans, apathy is just one piece of the puzzle for young people — and maybe not even the most important piece.

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According to our new survey with Ipsos of more than 8,000 Americans, people between 18 and 34 are less likely to have faith in our political system. But when we asked why they hadn’t voted in the past, we found that younger people weren’t more likely than older people to say they didn’t vote because they think the system is too broken to be fixed by voting, or because all the candidates are the same, or because they don’t believe in voting.

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That cynicism doesn’t seem to be motivating them to sit on the sidelines during elections. Instead, younger people are much more likely than older people to report that they or members of their household have experienced barriers to voting, which suggests that they may genuinely find it more difficult to cast a ballot. And that problem could be compounded this year given the extraordinary challenges of voting during a pandemic.

In our survey, almost one-quarter (22 percent) of young people said that when they didn’t end up casting a ballot, they had actually wanted to but couldn’t. As the chart below shows, young people are more likely to report that they or members of their household have experienced hurdles to voting — even though most have had far fewer elections to vote in. Young people, for instance, are much more likely to say they couldn’t get off work to vote, didn’t receive their ballot in time, missed the registration deadline or had trouble finding or accessing their polling place.

Take Jordan B., 23, a nursing student living in Savannah, Georgia. Due to a mixup when she renewed her driver’s license, Jordan’s voter registration reverted to her home county, which is more than 200 miles away. “I’ll probably just drive four hours to go vote,” she said. Jordan hasn’t had problems voting in the past but said some of her friends have run into issues with mail-in ballots this year. Despite the inconvenience of not being able to cast her ballot in Savannah this year, though, she said she’s going to make voting a priority, in part because she’s unhappy with how President Trump has handled the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like many other Americans, younger voters feel a sense of urgency around this election. Admittedly, they’re slightly less likely than older voters to say the outcome of the 2020 election really matters (75 percent compared with 91 percent of people 65 or over). But a high share (78 percent) of young people told us they’re planning to vote this year, although of course, the number who actually cast a ballot will almost certainly be lower.

That could be part of the reason why so many young people are turning out to vote early — and if turnout remains high among this group, that could be very good news for Joe Biden and Democratic candidates in general. In our poll, 53 percent of adults under 35 said they planned to support Biden, while only 24 percent said they planned to support Trump. (The rest were unsure.) In general, young people tend to be more Democratic-leaning than older people: Our survey found that 62 percent of adults under 35 identify as Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party.

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But young people aren’t necessarily that passionate about supporting Biden. He struggled with young voters in the primary, and several of our survey respondents told us in follow-up interviews that they’re still lukewarm about him. Kenneth Brant, 28, who lives in Florida and voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primary, was initially unhappy when Biden won the nomination but says he’s more enthusiastic about him now. Still, however, he feels pretty “resigned” about his vote.

Brant wasn’t the only young voter we spoke with who was dissatisfied with his options, or politics more generally. Andrew B., 29, said he finds politics very frustrating, because people on opposite sides of the aisle won’t admit that anything their opponents have done is good. Briana Thompson, 26, feels disappointed with her voting choices. She told us that since she lives in South Carolina, a red state, she doesn’t expect her vote to matter, which is why she’s decided to vote for the Green Party candidate instead of Biden. Thompson feels that sends a stronger message than simply voting for Biden. “[With] each [election] I am increasingly more jaded,” she said.

Other voters, like Brant, who still plans to vote for one of the two major candidates, also approached the process itself with a heavy layer of cynicism. Even though he lives in a swing state, Brant told us he still doesn’t think it will make a difference. “Honestly, Florida has never had free and fair elections,” he said.

These kinds of attitudes were common among the young voters we spoke with. That’s one reason why — particularly considering the high barriers they typically face — young voter turnout might continue to ebb and flow, even if we see record-high turnout this year. And many young people will likely continue to feel disenchanted with politics, even if they keep casting a ballot.

We asked Brant whether he’ll keep voting in 2022 and 2024, even if Trump wins, and he responded with the verbal equivalent of a shrug. “Yeah, sure, my vote won’t matter for anything, but I’ll cast it to say that I cast it.”

Tony Chow contributed reporting.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior editor and senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.

Jasmine Mithani was a visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

Laura Bronner is a senior applied scientist at ETH Zürich and FiveThirtyEight’s former quantitative editor.