Encourage competition in politics to appeal to young voters
This election cycle, a combination of procedure and unpredictable events pose a serious threat to voter turnout, particularly among young voters, or voters ages 18 to 35.
The first of these problems is the scheduling of elections in the U.S., which disincentivizes voter turnout, particularly among young people pretty much every election cycle. There exists little coherent reason why so many different elections for different levels of government occur at so many different stages of an election cycle — primary and general elections for federal, state and municipal offices.
We see from the 2014 elections that presidential off-years almost always result in lower voter turnout among young people; TIME Magazine reported in a November 2014 article that midterm elections saw the lowest voter turnout in 72 years. Although Republicans, who primarily rely on older voters (indeed, POLITICO once published an article on May 17, 2015 titled, ‘The GOP is Dying Off...Literally,’ where the author found that “of the 61 million who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, about 2.75 million will be dead by the 2016 election”), rely on this, the party still ought consider how only relying on older voters will hamper its long-term growth, because the types of voters they rely and have historically relied on are older and whiter than the fastest growing segments of this country.
But there’s even more to the story than that: municipal elections, and elections for governor in some states, often do not even occur on even years, and in some cases, the ‘final’ general election isn’t even on the first Tuesday of November. To name a few examples of this: Louisiana just held its general election runoff last December, Virginia’s gubernatorial elections are in 2017, and municipal elections are often held during odd years. It is patently absurd to think that young people, who often move around, will be able to consistently keep track of these elections, particularly state and municipal elections. Indeed, according to a 2014 article in Governing, less than 21 percent of registered voters cast their ballots in local elections in 2011.
These problems are also rampant in the presidential election system, which we are about to enter. Rarely does a Democratic or Republican candidate go on to win the presidential nomination without at the very least a strong performance in either Iowa or New Hampshire (Bill Clinton was considered the ‘comeback kid’ in 1992 following his strong second-place finish in New Hampshire), the first two states to hold their caucuses and elections, respectively. Both states are predominantly white and rural, and in both states there are very few young eligible voters relative to later, larger states like California and New York; a 2011 Brookings article notes, as many other researchers find, that young Americans tend to live in urban areas. This means that although nominations aren’t usually wrapped up by Iowa and New Hampshire, ultimately, younger voters, who mostly populate later-voting states, are given fewer choices, as many presidential candidates tend to drop out following poor performances in Iowa or New Hampshire.
Despite these persistent procedural problems, the chaos of this election cycle might actually lead to unusually high voter turnout among young people. The massive popularity of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders may lead to increased youth voter turnout (the lesson of the 2008 Obama campaign suggests this is certainly possible) — especially if Sanders performs well enough in Iowa and New Hampshire to stay in the race. A poll published just yesterday by RockTheVote, found that Bernie Sanders is polling far ahead of Hillary Clinton — 46 percent to 35 percent — among voters under age 35. However, if Hillary Clinton pulls off decisive wins in most of the early states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada), it is possible that Sanders will drop out of the race before Super Tuesday, which likely would depress youth voter turnout for the rest of the Democratic primary. Nonetheless, it is reasonably likely that any reasonably strong showing on the part of the Sanders campaign will keep young voters engaged and committed throughout the primary system.
On the Republican side, Democratic, Republican and nonpartisan analysts all predict that the fight between Donald Trump and everyone else will last long into the spring, possibly leading to a brokered convention — a convention where it isn’t immediately clear going in who the nominee will be. Some of the most reliable information on this subject comes from journalists who study trends in data, like statistician Nate Silver, of Fivethirtyeight. Silver wrote on his blog that “we’ve come way closer in the recent past to having a brokered convention than having someone like Trump win a major party nomination.” Republicans tend to be older than Democrats, but the GOP is slowly making progress in appealing to young voters, as Mark Bauerlein expresses in a Nov. 2014 op-ed in the New York Times: because many culture wars, including same-sex marriage, have largely been resolved, many young voters are opting to Republican candidates, with whom they sympathize on economic issues. Thus the infighting within the GOP, and the likelihood that Iowa and New Hampshire actually won’t clarify the top candidates, will likely lead to increased youth voter turnout in Republican primaries.
Youth voter turnout isn’t just about policies—Democrats and Republicans both constantly attempt to score points by saying that the other party’s ideas are relics of the past. Despite my own sympathies to Democrats and other progressives on this (and other matters), it’s clear that democracy is harmed when only one political party is actually competitive with young voters.