Voting at 18 is considered a rite of passage for young Americans, like getting a first car or moving out on their own. Yet, in the 2014 mid-term elections, only about 20 percent of young eligible voters cast their ballot. Dr. Damon Cann, a political science professor at Utah State University, says that voter apathy weighs heavily on elections in the United States.
“Voter turnout rates in the United States compared to many other industrialized democracies tend to be low. If we get much over 60 percent of the voting-eligible population that shows up to vote in a presidential election year we consider that to be a good or high-turnout year,” Cann says. “Among young voters, getting over 40 percent of young voters is a strong turnout. We have a considerable amount of voter apathy in the United States and it tends to be concentrated on the younger end of the spectrum.”
In an effort to increase participation by young voters, Utah’s colleges and universities are competing in the Campus Cup. The competition is held every two years and the winner is chosen based on how many students a particular school registers to vote. Student Advocate Vice President Matt Clewett oversees the Campus Cup efforts for the Utah State University Student Association. He says that the state’s seemingly toss-up status in this year’s presidential election has given young voters a greater voice.
“You tend to see a lot more students who are interested in being engaged in political elections during presidential years. This presidential election is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. Some may be dismayed by the candidates who are out there right now, but some are also very intrigued by the candidates who are out there right now,” Clewett says. “So, you tend to see especially now that we are such a key state and a key demographic here that can have a huge impact into this year’s election, every one of our votes count. That’s what we keep telling people when they come to the booth.”
The latest poll has Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton statistically tied among Utah voters, with independent candidate Evan McMullin within striking distance of the lead. Cann says that voter registration drives may have some marginal effect on young voter participation.
“You have to reach students who are busy. I think the most significant effect of campus voter registration drives, both at Utah State and generally, is probably t make it easier to register for students who were already going to try to find a way to get registered,” he says. “But I can’t help but think that on the margin there are probably some number of students who get picked up and get registered just because of the sheer convenience of it.”
Perhaps aside from the registration drives and social media campaigns, the way to get young Americans to vote is with the good old fashioned human element. Clewett says that the constant pestering to get young people to the polls can’t compare with the healthy peer pressure of things like the Campus Cup.
“I think it’s always impactful for a member of whatever community you’re a part of to actually help you influence your decision to register to vote or to vote,” he says. “You can have people come lecture us all the time about why it’s important to register to vote or why it’s important to get out there and vote, but when it’s a member of our own community—a member of our own student population who is there telling us that it’s important not only for our demographic but for them as well personally—it does breed a sense of influence, I would say.”
And yet, in the end, feelings of disappointment after the defeat of candidates like Bernie Sanders or Marco Rubio could be the undoing of efforts to get young and first-time voters out on Election Day. Cann points to studies on the impact of difficult primaries.
“There’s a long literature in political science that talks about how a divisive primary can end up turning off voters in the general election,” he says. “So, you could have, especially young voters who are very enthusiastic about Bernie Sanders, who are very motivated in the primaries, when the general election rolls around it might be harder for them to get excited about voting.”
However, Cann adds that research shows that peer pressure can, in fact, contribute to greater voter participation.
***This report is part of NPR and UPR’s A Nation Engaged project focusing on the upcoming elections.