Once again we are in an election cycle where the results could hinge on a simple question: will young people vote? Galvanizing youth turnout is a key strategy for all candidates. It is perhaps not an exaggeration to say that Millennial voters hold the key to the future political leadership of the country.
But, this is nothing specific to Millennials and to this election. Young voters have effectively been the “swing vote” since the election of Kennedy in 1960. Yet, young voter turnout is consistently low relative to other age groups.
The 26th Amendment was ratified in 1971 giving 18-21 year olds the right to vote for the first time. This means that anyone born in 1953 or later has never been of age at a time when they could not vote in a Presidential election. So, only those who are currently 64 or older (approximately) will have turned 18 at a time when they were not enfranchised.
This right did not come easily. The debate about lowering the voting age started in earnest during World War II, as many soldiers under 21 (especially those drafted into the armed forces) didn’t understand how they could be expected to sacrifice so much for a country if they did not have a say in how it was governed. The movement gained steam during the cultural revolution of the 1960’s and culminated in the passage of the 26th Amendment.
Young people celebrated their new found right to vote, and then promptly failed to take advantage of it. The chart below shows 18-24 year old voter turnout compared to totalvoter turnout for all Presidential election years since the 26th Amendment was ratified.
Much was made of Obama’s success in galvanizing the young vote in 2008. However, there was only a 2 percentage point gain increase in young voter turnout in 2008 versus 2004. As the chart shows, there was a big falloff in young voter participation in 1996 and 2000, which were the last elections before Millennials comprised the bulk of the 18-24 age group.
It remains that young voters are far less likely to vote than older adults and that trend is likely to continue.