By Lizzie Devitt

With a presidential election approaching, voting is top of mind and during COVID-19, voter turnout is more complicated and uncertain than ever before. Professor of Political Science at Duke University Sunshine Hillygus has been studying voter behavior for many years. In her newest book with co-author John Holbein, Making Young Voters, she brings insight to voter turnout dynamics and helps explain why young voter turnout is consistently so low.

With funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Hillygus and Holbein bridged research in political science, education and human development to determine the barriers for youth voter turnout and develop a solution to remove such obstacles that could be hindering young voters from showing up to the polls. Through large-scale student surveys exploring early-life civic attitudes and behaviors, education administrative records from secondary and post-secondary schools in Wake County, North Carolina, Hillygus and Holbein helped effectively trace students’ formative experiences from early life to today. Our office has previously profiled Hillygus’ research on youth voting, which you can access here.

Using her expertise, Hillygus answered five questions for us about the upcoming presidential election, key drivers for youth voter turnout and more:

1. When the youth voter turnout increases in some elections, what are the main drivers?

Although there are some elections in which youth turnout is higher—driven by frustration with the direction of government (whether about racial injustice, mass shootings, or Vietnam)—the more consistent pattern is that the majority of young people don’t vote, even when they are politically interested and motivated.  Our book shows that persistent low levels of youth turnout in the United States is not because young people are apathetic or disinterested, it is because obstacles, barriers and distractions too often get in the way of young people following through on their civic attitudes and intentions. Some obstacles that keep them from following through on their voting intentions are personal—a reflection of stage in life—but others are institutional—the various rules about when, where, and how Americans can vote, which impact new voters more than experienced ones.

2. What can a college campus do to encourage participation amongst their students?

Voter registration or verification should happen as part of the orientation process and should be revisited every year. Colleges need to ensure that their student IDs can be used as a valid form of ID in states in which they are required for voting and should fight for a voting precinct to be located on campus. 

3. How has NSF funding helped your research?

This research would not have been possible without NSF funding and the support of Duke’s Social Science Research Institute (SSRI).  Two grants from the NSF political science program provided the necessary funding for data collection, research assistance, and the dissemination of results. The NSF grant also helped to catalyze a collaboration with Wake County Public School System and provided John and I with the time to focus on the project. At Duke, SSRI was critical in helping us to apply for the grant, to design and implement original data collection, and in supporting data storage, management, and analysis.

4. What is an assumption most people hold about the youth vote that is incorrect?

People have long assumed that young people have not voted because they are apathetic or disillusioned about politics.  Our research shows that political motivation and interest is already high among young people–so this isn’t the key to improving youth turnout. The problem for young people is not that they are disinterested in politics; rather, barriers and obstacles to registration and voting often prevent them from following through on their intentions.

5. What are you watching for in this 2020 election in terms of turnout for youth voters?

Unfortunately, most of what is needed to increase youth turnout has to happen between elections—by making the registration and voting process easier and by rethinking civic education in the country. I worry that the COVID-19 pandemic has created considerable uncertainty and confusion about the registration and voting process. The (sometimes sudden) shift to online teaching on college campuses has displaced college students around the country, creating significant disruptions to daily life and confusion about residency rules, registration requirements, and ballot access.

Here on campus Hilllygus has lent her expertise to Duke Votes, a student-led campaign that helps raise awareness about local resources available for registration and voting. Hillygus joined Duke Votes’ efforts to address the gaps in youth voter turnout and speak about the importance of voter participation. Duke continues to devote resources and time leading up to the 2020 election to encourage voter turnout. More information is available at

Posted on 10/22/20