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Young Voters

Millennials form 31 percent of the U.S. voting population and can have a huge impact on the 2016 presidential election.

In 2016, the youngest voting demographic in the United States, the 18- to 35-year-olds, referred to as the millennials, comprise 31 percent of the voting electorate. According to data provided by Pew Research Center’s analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau in April 2016, the youth voting population is presently at its peak and almost at par with baby boomers (aged 52 to 70 years), who have been historically the strongest voter population in the country. If a majority of millennials vote on Election Day, it would have a huge impact on the outcome.

In the 2008 and 2012 election cycles, when Barack Obama ran for president, the youth turnout on voting day was larger than in previous elections. 2008 was a high point for millennials, with 50 percent of the eligible youth population turning out to vote. In 2012, 46 percent of millennials voted. In both instances, they overwhelmingly cast their votes for President Obama.

During the 2016 election, Democratic Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders's appeal to young voters was much discussed. He got 71 percent of the youth vote in the primaries, a number that surpassed even President Obama’s performance among young voters during his primaries.

Abby Kiesa, youth coordinator and researcher at The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), offers several data-driven insights on how candidates might seek to motivate and involve youth in the voting process.

• Provide opportunities for youth to be involved with the campaign and identify with the culture and messages of the campaign.

• Talk to, and with, youth authentically.

• Address issues, which youth report caring more about with respect to presidential candidates they vote for.

• Facilitate registration and make sure young supporters are registered to vote, and know how and when to do so.

• Encourage supporters, especially youth, to talk to their peers face-to-face about the issues and the campaign.

Attracting youth voters can be a complicated task. It has been well documented that young voters, especially those who will turn 18 just before the November election, are not reliable in terms of turnout. Many young people are not aware of their rights and responsibilities as voters, and the power they have to influence the outcome of elections. Even though young people comprise 31 percent of the electorate today, it remains to be seen how many cast their vote in the upcoming election.

Kiesa notes it is important to not view the youth as a monolithic entity. “Youth are diverse in many ways and interact with governments, politics and the political systems in different ways, which need to be reflected in campaign outreach and messaging. Voter turnout can differ quite a lot among youth. It’s important to think about youth voting as having many narratives. There are many contextual factors and people affecting youth participation, resulting in electoral participation trends that can differ greatly by community and state.”

There are many organizations that cater to youth with an aim to educate them about their civic and political duties as eligible voters. Some of these organizations strive to mobilize the youth by making the voting process seem “cool.” These organizations often involve musicians and public service announcements by actors. For example, Rock the Vote, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization founded 25 years ago by a group of artists, has been working to find new ways to get young people involved in the political process. OurTime.org also works to guide young Americans in the voting process, as does The League of Young Voters.

In addition to unreliable turnout numbers, the youth tend to be independent. This makes relying on party loyalty difficult when trying to sway young voters. 

According to Kiesa, there are several factors that will influence what happens in the 2016 elections. “One, the extent of the Clinton campaign’s investment in youth outreach/engagement; two, what the Trump campaign does over the next several months [to engage youth voters]; and three, the amount of investment [by each candidate] in youth organizations that engage and mobilize youth in politics.”


Natasa Milas is a freelance writer based in New York City.