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Youth Voting and Civic Engagement in the United States




In the last few years, democracy in the United States has trembled, new challenges have emerged, crises have raged on and the citizens’ faith in their government has been shaken. Against this backdrop, it is important to understand and analyse the role and the participation of those young people trying to seize the moment and desperately call for change.


Civic engagement means active participation to enhance communities and improve people’s lives; in fact, when every citizen gets involved, acts and people are empowered, communities have a chance to thrive; to improve; to become more equitable, just, and resilient; and to reflect their diversity. Civic engagement encompasses a broad set of actions and activities, from entering politics, volunteering, doing favours for neighbours, taking part in social movements, talking about issues with family, friends, and neighbours to being aware and informed and trying to get deeper education. “By harnessing the potential of America’s youth and helping to direct their passion for social change, we create a powerful catalyst for shaping the future”. Most of the issues the United States faces concern young people directly, from health care and gun control to the environment and foreign policy. Empowering and encouraging youth to actively participate in the political and civic life of the country can have a positive impact on matters like representation and marginalisation of those groups which have been usually underrepresented and found it difficult to engage.


It has been noted that the United States has one of the most complicated voting systems in terms of norms and rules in any western democracy. This is because the single citizen – rather than the government itself – is responsible for voter registration and because the U.S. has a decentralised system in which each state oversees administering elections and holds different rules and procedures, such as the degree of control local jurisdictions can exercise over the voting process. More specifically, in the United States, candidates are directly elected by the citizens in every election, except the one of the president and vice-president, who are not elected by the popular vote but instead by “electors” through a process called the Electoral College. Each state gets as many electors as it has members of Congress (House and Senate), for a total of 538 electors. And each state’s political parties can select their list of candidates for potential electors. When a person votes for a specific candidate, that ballot is directed into a national count and whoever gains at least 270 electors, wins the presidential election. Furthermore, in every single state – except for North Dakota – every citizen needs to register to vote and successively update the voter registration in case of changes in personal details or information or party affiliation. Laws regulating the registration process change according to the State, and the U.S. Constitution and its judicial system give States great autonomy in how they decide to administer elections. As a consequence, each state – and its local governments - can individually decide how to manage federal elections.


Among all the activities that embody civic engagement, voting is at its very core. It has been reported that young people tend to vote less than adults and voting rates among youth are compromised and jeopardised by racial, educational and other inequalities.


Even though youth voting and civic engagement remain too low with a wide margin of improvement and the need to address a significant problem of inequality and disparity regarding people’s access to opportunities for civic learning and engagement, youth participation rates have significantly increased in the last decades. In fact, the 2018 midterm election denoted a twenty-five-year high in youth turnout, ten points higher than four years before.


According to a study conducted by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), in the 2020 election, 50% of youth went to the polls and voted – establishing an 11-point increase compared to the 2016 election (in which 39% of youth voted, with a 55% preference for Hillary Clinton over a 37% for Donald Trump). 61% of young people voted for Joe Biden, while 37% chose Donald Trump, with more than 10 million young people (ages 18-29) deciding to cast a ballot before Election Day. Moreover, another figure that did better than in the 2016 election was the number of young people who had registered; in fact, there were more young people registered to vote in October 2020 than in November 2016.


As the United States is approaching a midterm election this fall, youth voting can have a considerable impact and influence on the results – especially in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, which are listed as the top five countries in CIRCLE’s Youth Electoral Significance Index - both at the federal and state level, and in every part of the nation, from the urban areas in southern California to rural communities in Maine and key battlegrounds in the Midwest.


There are different factors that make youth voting and civic participation difficult and challenging for some. The current dysfunctional political landscape in the United States, polarised media, the fact that young people are – for the most part – constantly moving across the country are a few examples. Alongside these, there is also a lack of places where people can meet up, discuss topics, confront problems, and share ideas and a general lack of civic education and knowledge. The United States is indeed undergoing an alarming political crisis in which civil liberties and people’s rights are seriously threatened by political fragmentation and a constant failure to reach bipartisan consensus on core issues. All of this is aggravated by widespread misinformation and a strong tendency to politicise facts and news content. Young people and their right to vote are particularly affected by voter identification restrictions, a decrease in the possibilities of early voting and same-day voter registration, a lack of polling sites at universities, and gerrymanders that affect college communities and reduce the voting power of youth.


This year, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) published its Youth in Development Policy, intending to increase and facilitate youth participation and access and empower young people to be agents of change. It does so while promoting equality, inclusion, and the possibility for all young people to actively take part in decision-making processes. In the attempt to face today’s most difficult challenges – climate change, political and economic instability, a pandemic, wars – it is important to make sure that “young people are our strongest partners in confronting the long-term effects of these interrelated challenges”.


In conclusion, as grave and difficult as the situation seems to be, the federal government as well as local authorities can put into place different measures to increase and encourage youth participation. Civic engagement should promote more informative campaigns that educate and provide young voters with accessible, reliable, and factual resources regarding the election and the voting process. Perhaps – most of all – voting processes and access to voting opportunities must be simplify, made more direct and effective and, most importantly, accessible to everyone.


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