Making Young Voters Through Institutional Reform

When compared to older generations, young people don’t vote in quantities representative of their population. Despite being roughly equivalent percentages of the voting-age public, 18-29 year-olds vote at half the rate of those 60 years plus. Conventional wisdom argues young people are lazy, apathetic or lack ‘civic virtue.’ One Duke research project wants to push back on that narrative in order to understand how politically motivated young people fail to engage, despite wanting to vote.

In line with the Duke Bass Connections program mission, knowledge works best when it serves a local community. In order to evaluate why young people do not vote in levels comparable to their older peers, Duke University’s Bass Connections program wants to examine the institutional and motivational issues stanching turnout in North Carolina.

With a grant from the National Science Foundation, Duke Professor of Political Science and Public Policy and Director of the Duke Initiative on Survey Methodology D. Sunshine Hillygus, Ph.D. leads students (both undergraduate and graduate) on the Bass Connections project Making Young Voters: Policy Reforms to Increase Youth Turnout that lasts from summer 2018 to spring 2019.

With so much university coursework focused on research at a distance, this project puts undergrads to work on an active federal grant. Bass Connections programs teach students the minutiae of fieldwork as they tease through the problems of amassing data. From collecting survey results and working with school administrators to interviewing subjects and culling through state legislative records, the Making Young Voters project hopes politically activate young people as well as research-oriented young scholars.

By leveraging longitudinal modeling and survey data, the project team hopes to understand what keeps young people from the polls. Their data will consist of school administrative records, voter registration files, student surveys and tests on the effects of mobilization efforts all collected from Wake County high schools.

According to Professor Hillygus, “this [youth voting issue] is such an important topic not just because normatively it is worth increasing turnout among young people, but it [also] directly shapes who is elected and the policies that get passed.” She continued, “if there is any wonder why social security is considered the 3rd rail of politics while education spending is being gutted, just look at the turnout rate by age.”

A component of that main question is what elements of the voting policy environment help or hinder young engagement. The Bass Connections team will also do a landscape analysis of a broad set of policy reforms in order to develop a framework to understand why some efforts work and others do not. There is no dearth of efforts to mobilize youth voting, but there is a shortage of comprehensive analyses of those efforts. This Bass Connections project hopes to fill that gap.

In addition to their actual survey results, the project hopes to compile various reports, a conference presentation and a comprehensive archived database on North Carolina electoral and educational policies.

Another component of the project studies civic education. Most civic education classes in high school focus on test-taking and fact memorization. Recent studies suggest that the most successful (in terms of youth vote mobilization) civic education efforts emphasize noncognitive skills: “the general abilities associated with self-regulation and social integration that are not captured by standard measures of cognitive proficiency,” according to the project website. Perhaps the most important noncognitive skill relevant to political activity throughout one’s lifetime is the ability to follow through on goals.

The Bass Connections team hopes to address the psychosocial skills needed to make that participation leap: how to work with others, plan for long-term goals and think about voting barriers (taking time off from work, registering on time, finding a polling station, what to do if one’s registration stalls, etc.).

As Hillygus noted, the ability to pursue future objectives is a better predictor of long-term voting patterns than are political interest, cognitive ability, parental involvement and socioeconomic status.

What makes people responsible citizens is not necessarily subject matter knowledge. “It turns out that civic educators might need to focus less on getting students to memorize the names of Supreme Court Justices and instead to teach them how to fill out a voter registration reform correctly or what to do if they show up to vote and find their name is not on the voter rolls” argued Hillygus.


This post is part of our Duke in North Carolina Series showcasing Duke’s activities in and in service to local communities, environments, economies and people.

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