Low voter turnout among people aged 18-29 is an epidemic in our country that poses a very serious threat to our democracy. That age range represents 21% of the eligible voting population, but according to early exit polls from the midterm election last week, it only represented 13% of the actual voting population. This is problematic because we, as college students and young people, have many issues and policies that affect us, and we will have to live the longest with the decisions of our policy makers.
According to studies done by The Center For Information and Research On Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), it is essential to establish a habit of voting at a young age to ensure that voters will consistently turn out when they get older. If voting rates continue to be low among our generation it will mean that a minority of the population is deciding who is controlling our government, resulting in even more hyper-partisanship and gridlock than we see today.
According to data provided by the Appleton City Clerk, 71% of eligible voters in Appleton voted in this election. In our ward, that number was only 54%, the lowest of any ward in the city. Low voter turnout among our generation is not due to apathy; it’s due to registration and voting processes that seem too daunting. We must be aware of the factors that made voting easier for us and protect those in the future if we wish to have any say in the decision-making of this country.
We are very fortunate that the Lawrence administration made it easy for us to vote by providing the shuttle that took students to the polls and the proof of residence that allowed us to register. We’re also lucky to live in a state that provides Election Day Registration (EDR).
Many states have stringent and complicated registration laws including registration deadlines weeks prior to Election Day. In fact, according to data provided by the City Clerk, half of those who voted at Alexander Gym last Tuesday registered that day. No other ward in Appleton even came close to that percentage of EDR voters. This is due to a variety of factors; many students had to re-register because their addresses changed since the last time they voted and many other students put off registering until the last minute. The bottom line is that flexible registration laws are necessary for students with demanding schedules.
Additionally, Wisconsinites—and young ones especially—can be thankful that the state’s voter ID laws were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court last month. Had the law been in effect, students would have needed an ID other than their Lawrence ID, meaning that students without a Wisconsin driver’s license would have had a much harder time voting. According to a study done by the Government Accountability Office, Voter ID laws reduce turnout among voters between the ages of 18 and 23 by a significant amount.
I saw many reasons for optimism as an active volunteer in get-out-the-vote efforts on Election Day. I watched as the Lawrence shuttle continuously filled with students until the polls closed. I witnessed students become engaged through internships or get-out-the-vote efforts on Election Day. Many of you voted for the first time ever; some of you even voted despite promising yourself you’d never do so. All of these are reasons for much optimism for us as citizens in this democracy.
It’s vital that college students vote because our interests will not be protected unless we hold those who threaten them accountable. There’s a reason that reforms to Medicare or Social Security are dead-end discussions: senior citizens are the most consistent voting bloc in voter turnout. According to exit polls from last week’s election, seniors aged 65 and older represented a quarter of the electorate despite only representing 15% of the population.
Compare that to 13% of the electorate among voters aged 18-29. That’s how Congress could get away with raising federal student loan interest rates this past summer. Congress and the president aren’t forced to care about our interests because we don’t represent a strong enough voting bloc.
I don’t mean to overshadow the positives from this election; Lawrence was engaged and interested in the political process last Tuesday. There’s a lot of momentum for political participation to build on leading up to the 2016 election, but there’s also a lot of room for improvement.