Utahns turned up in droves to vote — many of whom for the first time — in the Republican and Democratic primaries on March 22.
Voting is not only a right, but a responsibility of adulthood in a democracy. Yet young adults in the U.S. have been notorious for not showing up at the polls.
The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) reports that young people aged 18 to 29 make up 21% of all eligible American voters. However, a chart lists voter turnout for people aged 18 to 30 at approximately 40% since the year 2000. In contrast, voters aged 45 and older have a consistent turnout rate around 70%.
Salt Lake Community College student Fernando Pasillas, 25, described his voting experience.
“I walked into my polling location; they had a line of only about four people,” he says. “Then they check your driver’s license and make sure you’re on the list for that location, and you just sign in and then you vote. It was pretty easy.”
Despite the straightforward process, voter turnout for young people consistently lags behind other groups.
SLCC student Graeme Squire, 29, wears a shirt that says “I’m ready for Satan ‘16, a leader we can trust.”
Squire believes voter turnout for his age group is low because, “Votes from here don’t really count. Utah isn’t one of the three states that has enough [delegates in the electoral college].”
Although Squire feels that Utah votes have less significance nationally, he encourages his peers to cast their ballot anyway.
“I think it’s important for everyone to vote even though it’s more of a participatory act,” he explains. “Sometimes voting counts, sometimes it doesn’t, but if you don’t vote then it never counts.”
SLCC student Nate Jennings, 20, isn’t sure if his vote really counts or not but believes that not voting risks misrepresentation.
“They say that Utah is a Republican state, but if more Democrats voted … if enough of us voted then maybe we could become a Democratic state.”
The skepticism around the value of voting isn’t new.
Impact of voting
Youth participation has impacted presidential elections, as demonstrated in 2012 where 80 electoral votes from swing states were decided by young voters.
However, its arguable that state and local leaders have a more direct impact on their communities. And these elected officials that include governors, mayors, city councils and state legislators are all chosen by local residents through popular vote.
Educating young voters
New voters in Salt Lake County will receive the same yellow card in the mail from Sherrie Swensen.
As the county clerk, Swensen is responsible for the elections held in Salt Lake County and has spent over two decades addressing the issue of low youth voter turnout. She received the League of Women Voters Community Service Award in 2000 and the Eleanor Roosevelt Award in 2010 for her efforts.
Swensen explained that when she has spoken with young people about voting there has been a clear “lack of understanding.” She says that some young voters would ask her how much it costs to vote, or if there are penalties for not voting.
“They’re not getting that this is a precious right,” she says.
Swensen has coordinated registration drives at high schools and colleges in an attempt to help raise awareness about the importance of voting.
“The decisions being made by today’s leaders are building the world that today’s youth are going to live in,” she says. “They will have a profound impact on their lives much longer than they will affect the leaders making those decisions.”
Swensen remains hopeful that more young voters will become more educated about the process.
“Democracy,” she says, “is only served when people participate.”
Preparing for the polls
Pasillas had some reservations when he cast his ballot for the first time.
“I thought it was just going to be their main [presidential] candidates, not a bunch of other candidates [running] for other positions,” he explains. “I felt kinda uneasy to the fact that I didn’t want to leave it blank, but I didn’t want to vote for someone I didn’t know much about.”
A poll conducted by HuffPost/YouGov in 2014 revealed that young adults think that only well-informed eligible voters should cast a ballot, and many youth say they do not feel they are informed enough to vote.
One of Swensen’s efforts has been to promote a permanent Vote By Mail program.
The option is now available to all Salt Lake County citizens to have a ballot delivered by mail for all elections that citizen is eligible to vote in. You do not need to be disabled or military. When registering, select to receive your ballot by mail. Ms. Swensen would recommend you set this as permanent for all future elections. (Register to vote online at www.got-vote.org)
An absentee ballot gives voters a chance to study the candidates.
“The idea that you can get like a ‘take-home packet’ sounds really valuable,” Pasillas says.
Voters can also use online resources like iSideWith, which provides users with a multiple-choice form containing policy questions and a priority level of each issue. After submitting the form, the compares a voter’s responses to the most compatible candidates.
Young voters may be surprised at how they feel about the issues being debated.
“I didn’t know how to get information [about politics] before, but I do now,” Pasillas says. “Online is a big resource to look up different candidates.”
Voter concerns vary
The students interviewed for this story pay attention to a variety of issues. Pasillas, for example, thinks about undocumented people in America who don’t have the option to vote.
“A lot of times, people who are undocumented may be born in a different country, but come to the United States as a child and grow up living here with expectations, but don’t have a voice,” he says. “I think they need to be heard but they can’t because they’re not allowed to [vote].”
Squire is concerned about some of the proposed immigration policies.
“Trying to shut down immigration rather than helping refugees — our country was founded by immigrants,” he says.
Jennings and Pasillas shared a concern about legalizing marijuana.
“I know people that are in need of that medication and taking opiates isn’t always the answer,” Pasillas says. “I think medicinal use of marijuana can be very beneficial to anyone that is in need of that type of medication to help them with things like eating.”
Voting is habit-forming
Evidence shows that increasing early voting will grow the next voter generation.
CIRCLE reports that 84% of registered voters aged 18 to 29 cast a ballot in 2008 and exit poll numbers show a fairly consistent voter turnout for each age group during the last 40 years.
SLCC student and registered voter Chelsea Bracken, 23, makes an observation that supports the data.
“It took me a while to even show an interest in politics when I was younger,” she says. “So I think when you’re 18 that’s a barrier, but when you get older you start to realize the importance.”
Although young voters fall behind their older counterparts, Bracken is one of many in this demographic who think it’s important that people are represented.
“We probably don’t participate as much as older people who are more experienced and more involved,” she says. “Just like me, I’m not very involved but I want to be.”