Of registered voters in Virginia who always vote, less than five percent are under 30 years old, according to an analysis of state voter data by the Virginia Public Access Project.
Likewise, people under 30 make up a disproportionate share — 45 percent — of registered voters who never vote, the analysis found.
The numbers are particularly stark compared to voters at the other end of the age spectrum. Nearly 50 percent of voters who always vote are aged 65 and over. Of registered voters who never vote, they make up 12 percent.
So what’s behind the gap?
Alex Keena, a political scientist at VCU whose research focuses on political participation, blames the state’s odd-year elections, districts rendered uncompetitive by years of gerrymandering and candidates and campaigns who focus on issues that don’t resonate with younger residents.
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: Is this number – only five percent of registered voters under 30 always voting — surprising to you, having studied this, or is it kind of what you would have expected?
A: It’s very low. And, I think that the fact that we have off-year elections at the state [level] may be primarily responsible for that low number. Young people are always low, but having that odd-year election where mass media isn’t necessarily talking about it as much and there isn’t a big ticket race at the top that drives voter turnout, that has a lot to do with what we’re seeing.
Yeah, that was my next question. Why? [And, to slip some background in: Virginia is one of just five states to elect its governor and legislators during odd-years that don’t correspond with federal elections for Congress or president.]
That’s always been an issue in Virginia. We have shockingly low turnout. A couple years ago I looked at state-level turnout in Virginia among all voters and the number of votes cast for General Assembly seats represented 13 percent of the voting-eligible population.
There’s two things going on. First there’s no concurrent national races that go on during these odd-year elections. So what that means is, when voters go to the polls for a presidential election, they see lower-order races and they obviously participate because there’s no cost in doing so. They already showed up for the big-ticket event. You have to make an effort to go out for the odd-year elections.
The other thing is, a lot of our races for the General Assembly level are not very competitive. There are quite a few uncontested races and so that factors in as well. When your vote doesn’t even matter because the race is already determined in advance, then why even show up?
But younger voters are still less likely to show up in these races.
So this is a problem particularly for young people because we know that there are generational differences in terms of the perceived value of voting. In general, we like to think that older Americans are more ritualistic in their voting behavior. When they were coming of age, voting was about doing your civic duty and being a good citizen.
For younger Americans who grew up in the era of 9/11, the modern era of politics when the parties are extremely polarized and there’s gridlock at the national level, they see voting as less effective in terms of being able to influence the political process. They’re actually more inclined to unconventional modes of political participation like protests, boycotts and political consumerism. And a lot of young people are unsatisfied with the two parties so their decision not to vote is frequently a protest.
In recent years, there have been a lot of organizations that are really trying to lift these numbers for younger voters. That’s obviously not new this year. Do you see those groups making inroads?
Absolutely. When I was growing up they had Rock the Vote. They tried to get celebrities to convince people to get out the vote. I think that probably worked for presidential elections. This year there’s a much more deliberate effort to mobilize young people. A midterm year, there’s no president – it’s still very high profile and the president has injected himself in this election in a way that has become a referendum on the president.
I think you will see very high turnout relative to other midterm years, but that doesn’t really solve the problem with low voting in Virginia state elections. That’s going to be a problem regardless, because of the odd years.
So next year, you’re not expecting much?
Especially because there’s no governor’s race next year. It’s going to be very low.
Are there strategies you’ve seen people try in Virginia to try to address that?
A lot of it has to do with the campaigns themselves. The candidates, I think in both parties, they’ve accepted the fact that young people don’t really vote, so they aren’t really part of the equation when you’re thinking about these kinds of campaigns.
It’s this self-reinforcing cycle, because the electorate is disproportionately older, then candidates and campaigns appeal toward older Americans and they have issues that appeal toward older Americans. And what does that do? That ends up alienating young people even more.
This is an untapped source of power. I think candidates who are perhaps trying to unseat an incumbent or competing in an open race, they’ll have to mobilize young voters themselves.
I always ask students in my classes why they don’t vote. They feel like neither of the parties really represent their interests so they feel like there’s not much of a meaningful choice between the options they’re given. That may not be the case at the presidential level, but when it comes to these lower order elections, that’s how they feel.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the results of VPAP’s analysis. They found that only 5 percent of voters who always vote are under 30, not that only 5 percent of people under 30 always vote.