The Next Generation of Reformers: Reasons for Young People to Get Involved in the Electoral Reform Movement

by Dorothy Scheeline // Published August 24, 2011

According to The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, an estimated 24% of all eligible young people ages 18-29 voted in the 2010 midterms – in contrast to 51% of eligible voters over 30. Historically, we’re a group that gets ignored a lot by political campaigns and pollsters. The chicken or egg question of youth voter turnout is usually: Do young people not vote because campaigns ignore us, or do campaigns ignore us because we don’t vote?

The 2008 election seemed to prove that young people do vote if we see a reason to participate and are reached out to. The same is true for young people in nonpartisan movements like the environmental movement and organizations like Invisible Children that deal with international conflicts. Young people, especially of the millennial generation, will get excited and involved in elections and organizations if we are specifically targeted.

A lot of the people advocating for structural changes do so because we have problems with the established political culture. The group of people that is 18-29 right now has a lot of reasons to want deep systemic change soon. Because of this, I think that over the next decade we will see groups that are focused on young people intensify their advocacy efforts for election reform issues. Here’s why:

  • We’re very transient, so we benefit from policies like Same Day Registration and Universal Voter Registration. If you move to a state that has different election laws or have to move suddenly, you might miss the deadline to register. These policies mean that no one will be disenfranchised because of a location change.
  • We’re used to having to figure out new technologies quickly and are used to adapting to the newest model, so  registering to vote online and having better voting machines is not something we would shy away from. But we also know the limits of technology, so we will be supportive of checks on election systems, like paper ballots and election audits.
  • Being smart is cool- not only can we be a more informed electorate, we can be more informed about the system’s current deficiencies.  Efforts to improve civic education can heighten awareness.

For instance, these organizations that focus on young people have recently advocated for voting rights and other structural changes:

In 2010, The Bus Project  in Portland, OR campaigned against the repeal of the local municipal public-option campaign financing law. The Bus Project’s main objective is to get young people more involved in politics.

League of Young Voters in Portland, ME is crusading against the repeal of Election Day Registration in Maine as we speak. Young people are one of the biggest demographics that Election Day Registration helps, although certainly not the only. Last year the League of Young Voters was involved in advocating for an elected Mayor in Portland and Ranked Choice Voting, both of which are being implemented for the first time this fall, and pushed hard for a nearly successful effort to allow residents who are legal immigrants to vote in city elections.

Young people are also defending their rights at a time when many citizens’ rights are under attack. In New Hampshire, there was a recent attempt to disenfranchise students in the form of an unconstitutional bill in the legislature that sought to bar students originally from out of state from voting in New Hampshire. Students from different colleges in New Hampshire went to the mattresses, and defended the rights of students to vote through protest, testifying in the State Legislature, and reaching out to media.

Students at Yale advocated for National Popular Vote in Connecticut and testified before the Election Laws Committee. Students all over the country are advocating for NPV and making an impact.

Voter pre-registration is a policy that is most effectively advocated for by the people it affects- young people ages 16 and 17, or people that were recently high school age. The Rhode Island Young Democrats successfully advocated for voter pre-registration in their state, which has been in effect since early 2010.

Groups like this mean that the next generation of election reformers is already active. But if we want to capitalize on all the reasons why this particular group should be calling for reforms like Ranked Choice VotingRight to Vote, Pre-registration, and more, we need to make sure our message is reaching them.