The Parkland Effect on Youth Turnout

A couple of conflicting headlines caught my eye recently.

“Record turnout? Not for millennials — just a third say they’ll vote” by Stephanie Perry, and
“The young don’t vote? This time they will” by John Della Volpe.

Those can’t both be true, can they? The key to understanding how people come to such opposite conclusions is included in the Perry headline when she says that “just a third say they’ll vote.” As I’ve written previously, that ignores history. If we add some historical context to the analysis, we learn that in the 2014 midterm elections, only 19.9 percent of 18-29 year olds voted. Here’s what youth voter turnout looks like over time:

If, as Perry suggests, just a third of millennials vote, that would be the largest turnout among young people since at least the late 70’s. According to Volpe, even that number is low.

In a poll released today by the Harvard Institute of Politics, where I am polling director, we find that Americans under age 30 are 54 percent more likely to vote than they were in our 2014 midterm polling. Forty percent tell us they will vote in the midterms next week.

Here is something he found that is even more interesting:

From a menu of 16 prominent issues developed by younger voters for a project I directed over the summer, views related to school shootings were most highly correlated with likelihood to vote. To my surprise, a full 55 percent rated school shootings a 7 on a 1 to 7 scale of importance; a combined 71 percent rated the issue a 6 or 7. The second and third issues strongly correlated with voting in November were health care and gun violence.

It’s clear that the students who began organizing after the Parkland shooting are having a major effect on mobilizing young people to vote. A lot of credit goes to both them and the teacher, Jeff Foster, who helped prepare them for activism.

The key shift, however, is not just about the issues.

Issues alone do not lead to youth voter turnout. Changes in attitude must come first, and our studies show that there is a new attitude about the efficacy of political engagement that matches interest in issues that disproportionately affect the current young generation That’s why I am confident that the underlying factors are in place for what Teddy Landis, the student chair of the Harvard Public Opinion Project, refers to as a “youth wave.”

That makes it important for all of us to join these newly engaged young people in voting for new leadership and representation. For political engagement to be effective, we have to elect politicians who actually care about governing and aren’t simply interested in fear-mongering to maintain power.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.