OK, Voter | Opinion

Among the many memes to grace our collective consciousness in the past year is "OK boomer," a two-word eye roll that younger generations hurl at condescending old people who just don't get it.

Frustration with boomers boiled over in 2019, as efforts to combat issues such as the climate crisis, unaffordable college tuition, wealth inequality and gun violence stalled in a U.S. Congress whose members are among the oldest in history. But you can say one thing for boomers: They vote. In fact, when today's youth cry "OK, boomer," they really ought to be saying "OK, voter."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, since 1986, Americans over age 60 have voted in presidential elections at an average turnout rate 28 percentage points higher than Americans under age 30. That difference is even greater in midterm elections, at 36 points.

Youth voting advocates like to point out that youth turnout nearly doubled between 2014 and 2018. But turnout rates went up for everyone during that period. As a nation, we went from one of the lowest midterm turnout rates in modern history to one of the highest. The gap between older and younger people narrowed from 39 percentage points in 2014 to 33 in 2018. Better, but still a huge difference.

The media's polling during the Iowa and New Hampshire presidential nomination contests does not provide strong evidence of a youth voting surge. In Iowa, the electorate's share of persons under age 30 increased from 18 percent in 2016 to 24 percent in 2020. However, in New Hampshire, the youth share of the electorate decreased from 19 percent to 13 percent.

Having young people vote at levels on par with baby boomers would fundamentally change our politics. Since 2004, the media's polls have consistently showed a marked difference in party preference between younger and older voters.

In an alternative universe with youth voting at high rates, we'd already have a Democratic-controlled Senate and most likely a President Bernie Sanders. We'd never have left the Paris climate accord and would be working to achieve 100 percent renewable energy. We'd have raised the federal minimum wage, as well as the tax rate for the wealthiest Americans. We'd be tackling the rising cost of college rather than accusing students and families of "excessive" borrowing. And we'd be saving American lives every day with gun laws.

So what can be done to increase youth turnout?

Many young people say they need a candidate to speak to them on the issues they care about. However, despite all of the 2020 Democratic candidates embracing many of the issues young people mention in surveys as important to them, and Sanders championing those issues, a revolution-level youth voter turnout surge has not materialized.

Other advocates point to election laws, and undoubtedly some states make it hard for young people to vote. New Hampshire enacted a policy—still being litigated—that targets out-of-state college students by requiring voters to register their car and get an in-state drivers' license. If students want to vote in their home state, or even their home locale within a state, they often must vote via an absentee ballot, which is a multistep process of requesting and returning the ballot. A Florida ACLU report documents how election officials more often reject young people's mail ballots. Texas enacted a photo ID law that excludes college IDs as valid for voting, while accepting gun permits. The list goes on.

Laws matter, but many young people are simply not registered or choose not to vote.

Some people advocate for more civic education. Certain states allow high school students to preregister, so they will be on voter rolls when they turn 18. I support this policy, but it has a small turnout effect. Some cities and towns allow 16-year-olds to vote in local elections. This is an interesting idea, but since it is a new innovation, it is unknown if it will increase youth turnout.

Bernie Sanders supporters
Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders greets supporters during a primary night event on February 11 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Joe Raedle/Getty

Organizations such as Rock the Vote, NextGen America and many others focus on registering young people and encouraging them to vote. These efforts are welcome and needed, but despite these organizations' best efforts, they still haven't cracked the tough nut of youth voter engagement, particularly among young people who aren't attending college. It is easy to mobilize college students; they are in a close-quarters environment where peer-to-peer networks are easy to grow. Folks not on a college campus are very difficult to engage.

We've seen record turnouts since President Donald Trump's 2016 victory, as Americans have become passionate about politics. All signs point to exceptional turnout come November. If turnout rises in 2020, youth turnout will likely rise, too. Be wary of youth advocacy groups claiming victory, though. Advocacy groups crowed after the high youth turnout in 1992, only to see it crumble in 1996.

Whatever the solution, it will require sustained commitment to engaging young people in democracy. Until then, boomers will continue to dominate politics, OK?

Michael McDonald is an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida who specializes in elections. He directs the U.S. Elections Project, which produces what many consider to be the official turnout rates for the United States.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.