On July 1, 1971 the 26th Amendment passed. This lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, adding nearly 11 million potential voters to the electorate.
The following year, almost half of that 11 million voted. The 1972 presidential election remains the highest ever recorded turnout for youth voters. Why? Moreover, why does youth turnout lag so far behind that of older age groups?
These are important questions. Young people bring energy and new ideas to politics. Compared to older generations, they typically support different issues and candidates. Literally, young people are the political future.
The Age Gap
Celebrated political scientist Walter Dean Burnham observed: “If you don’t vote, you don’t count”. 1 On Election Day, voters can penalize representatives not aligned with their preferences. Voters can also select like-minded candidates that will support policies they desire. By contrast, non-voters cannot take advantage of these benefits. Elected officials can in fact safely ignore those who do not vote. Low voter turnout among specific groups thus raises legitimate concerns about the equality of representation.
The graph below reflects the vast age disparities in voter turnout. For presidential elections, differences between age groups are large. On average, about 65% of the 45-64-year-old group vote in presidential elections compared to 40% of the 18-24-year-old group – a 25-point gap. The spread remains about 25 points during off-year congressional elections.
However, the age gap widens in local elections such as mayoral races, city council and school board contests. Consider, for example, Las Vegas 2015 mayoral election. Approximately 33% of the older generation voted compared to just 2 percent of the youngest voters. In Detroit, the mayoral election attracted nearly 50% of older voters but only 9% of youth.
The implications are clear. Older Americans are first in line, their political issues dominate the agenda and occupy the attention of elected officials.
In an accessible book entitled, Is Voting for Young People, Martin P. Wattenberg demonstrates that changes in the media environment discourage exposure to politics, especially among young people. Exposure leads to interest and knowledge, which in turn produces political engagement and participation.
It’s a generational issue. Socialized in the TV age – and now Internet and smart phones, young people select from an incredible range of entertaining options. As a result, they are less likely to consume political information.
Compare today’s youth to those raised during the 1960s and 1970s. Local newspapers were the key source of political news. Delivered daily, the newspaper found its way to the kitchen table. The adults browsed various sections while the kids flipped quickly thru the pages to read the comics. The family may have shared sections and discussed on-going events around town. An important habit developed.
Data show a surprisingly high percentage of young people consumed newspaper articles about presidential campaigns, which continued well into the 1970s. However, by 1980, newspaper readership declined sharply, as the number of commercial TV channels and entertainment alternatives increased. No longer did the family share the newspaper and watch the nightly news.
% Reading Newspaper about Campaign by Age
Similarly, in the 1970s, young people were paying attention to TV news. A large proportion watched the 1972 Democratic Convention. The 1976 Convention remained popular but a drop in viewership had begun. By 2000, less than 40% of young people watched. While viewership also declined among the 65 plus age group, a healthy majority continued to monitor campaign events. The older age groups developed their political habits in the newspaper era, the younger generations did not.
% Watching a Portion of Party Conventions by Age
In the newspaper era, exposure to political news led to excellent scores on political knowledge questions. In fact, younger people scored better on average than older folks – see Table below. Yet by the 1980s, when newspapers declined and TV options expanded, the knowledge advantage disappeared and favored older Americans. The knowledge gap is even wider today.
Knowledge questions tapped people’s awareness of certain political facts: For instance, how many times can a president be elected, the name of the current Supreme Court Chief Justice, the name of a state Senator, and which party controlled the House of Representatives. Correct responses were added together, and average scores compared across age groups.
Average % Correct on Political Knowledge Questions by Age
Finally, Wattenberg shows the phenomenon is not exclusive to the United States. Similar age gaps in political knowledge and voter turnout exist across almost all Western Democracies.
Exposure to politics creates interest in political affairs. Political interest produces political knowledge, which is foundational to political participation. The media landscape changed dramatically in the mid-1980s, which made exposure to politics less likely among young people. Newspapers literally disappeared, and the three channels that broadcasted news to millions of people fragmented into literally hundreds of channels that narrowcast to thousands.
Sure, we can still find plenty of political news. But, with just a click, we can also find a dazzling array of entertaining distractions. The comics in newspapers seem trite by comparison, as does TV news.
Wattenberg does not assert something radically different about young people today. Rather, he claims the media landscape that youth experience is different. It is a structural problem. Armed with a smart phone and iPods, and having access to Netflix, video games, social media and several massive flat screen TVs, young people are unlikely to focus on political news.
The consequences are troubling – voting favors older Americans. While the 26th amendment enfranchised millions of young people, subsequent changes in the media environment decreased their chances of exercising that privilege.
On the other hand, youth turnout for the 2018 congressional elections smashed previous records. Organizations who focus on youth turnout praised participation levels and are optimistic about future elections.
Wattenberg, however, is not optimistic. Record breaking turnout does not change the fact that older voters nearly doubled youth turnout in 2018. Accordingly, Wattenberg advances a strong remedy – compulsory voting. Legal age citizens would be required to vote or face a small fine. Other countries adopted compulsory voting to great success including Belgium and Australia, two countries where turnout is robust and age gaps do not exist.
Advocates of compulsory voting recognize most Americans will scowl at this solution. Americans will say, “It is my right to vote, and I have the freedom to exercise it or not.”
The analyses of youth voting thus lead us to a final question: What is more important, the freedom to choose or equality between generations?
1 Burnham, W. D. (1987). The turnout problem. In ed. A. J. Reichley (Ed.), Elections American style (pp. 97-133). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution