Why We Are Grateful That Young People Are Voting

Young people believe in the vote. We wish everyone did.

Posted Oct 27, 2020

lakshmiprasada S/Shutterstock
Source: lakshmiprasada S/Shutterstock

Young people will likely vote in record numbers on November 3rd. In one recent poll, 78% of those between 18 and 24 years of age reported being registered to vote. The same poll suggested that more than 70% of the members of this age group are likely to vote next week. Most of the young people — whether Democrats or Republicans — reported that they wanted the government to do more to rectify systemic racism, protect the environment, and improve access to mental health services. In other words, young people are excited about voting and believe that governments can improve the lives of Americans.

The optimism of young people is harder to discern in older Americans. In a study by two political scientists from Yale University, fewer than 4% of respondents said that violation of democratic norms would be grounds for rejecting a candidate. Most people would overlook such acts as muzzling a reporter’s questions or closing a polling station arbitrarily. In a second study from Vanderbilt University, majorities or near majorities of Republicans were also ready to dismiss democratic norms. These adults were ready to “mistrust elections,” “use force to save our way of life,” “allow strong leaders to bend rules,” and “take the law into their own hands.”

Why is it that young Americans are excited to participate in the election and are optimistic about government, while the American electorate as a whole seems pessimistic? One interpretation has been offered by Larry Bartels who surveyed 1,151 GOP-identifiers in January 2020. He found that endorsement of anti-democratic norms was associated with “ethnic antagonism.” Adults who accepted violation of democratic norms also agreed with a set of statements regarding America’s changing ethnic composition. Specific items referred to negative feelings toward Muslims and other immigrants, believing that Black and Hispanic people get more than their fair share of government resources, saying that discrimination against White people is as big a problem as is discrimination against Black people, and in general “feeling like a stranger in my own country.”

Each recent generation of young people grows up in increasingly ethnically and racially diverse cohorts. The consequence of growing up in diverse contexts is deepened concern for racial equality.  This means diminished ethnic antagonism, and in turn, less distrust in democracy. If this interpretation is correct, then the future of democracy can be bright, if we provide opportunities for young people to participate. 

 Simone Hogan/Shutterstock
Source: Simone Hogan/Shutterstock

In the Harvard Youth Poll, 81% of the young people claimed that the best way to produce change in American society is to vote. This is how Americans should seek to shape the country; we should all reject ideas like “allow strong leaders to bend rules” or that citizens may “have to take the law into their own hands.”

The millions of young people who vote on or by November 3rd bring enthusiasm, belief in the benefits of good government, and the value of the vote for improving American life. We should all be grateful for their participation.