Kei-Kawashima Ginsberg in the WGBH studio.

Credit: Matt Baskin/WGBH News

Tufts University Research Shows Potential Power Of Youth Vote

March 29, 2018

Barbara Howard: When it comes to political activism, young people have taken center stage. That's pretty clear from the "March for Our Lives" rallies. But what sort of power do they actually have when it comes to elections? Perhaps quite a bit. That's according to new research from Tufts University. With us in the studio is Kei-Kawashima Ginsberg, who led the research for the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts. Thanks for joining us.

Kei-Kawashima Ginsberg: Thank you.

BH: Well, so the research looked at potential young voters, up to age 29, and what did you find?

KG: We find that there are, in fact, many states and congressional races where young people can make a pivotal impact, and that's largely because the races are projected to be close, but also because of a number of laws that are working to help young people to participate in this process, such as automatic registration. But also, the amount of enthusiasm we're seeing among young people is a good indicator there could be a high turnout this election.

BH: Which states look like they're most competitive?

KG: Those states include places like Minnesota, Arizona and Missouri, as well as Wisconsin.

BH: And some of those are battleground states?

KG: All of them are, in fact ... you know, in all of the cases, either the incumbent is at risk of losing his or her seat, or there's an open seat right now.

BH: And these are vulnerabilities for both Democrats and Republicans?

KG: That's correct. In many cases, it's the Democrat who is in a red state and they're trying to protect their seat. In other cases, it's an open seat that has been vacated by a Republican incumbent. For example, Arizona is a state where there's an open seat that was held by a Republican Senate member, and so that could be a really competitive state where there is a lot of young people from really diverse backgrounds who are poised to vote.

BH: It seems like with these rallies last weekend, there was a real crackling in the air. People registering kids right there at the rallies. And you can register now when you're 17, coming up into the midterms. Is there a chance that the interest will wane? There's some months between now and November.

KG: That's correct. Registering young people is, of course, very important, but it's often not enough. There are many ways we can keep young people engaged, though. One of them is to really make sure that they can feel like they can do something at their local community. Some of the ways in which to do that is [to] make sure young people are motivating their own friends and families, uncles and aunts, and even grandparents. Also, they can work at polling places in some states, including, I believe, Massachusetts, where young people can be [a] really active part of the process even before they're actually eligible to vote.

BH: But young people do tend to turn out in much smaller numbers than older voters.

KG: That's correct. Traditionally, they've turned out at the lower numbers; it is especially the case in midterm elections. Last midterm election we measured youth turnout was 2014, and nationwide only 20 percent of under 30s actually turned out.

BH: Do you think this time it's different, having seen the rallies last weekend?

KG: There are certainly great indicators of hope. One is that there's of course been a lot of enthusiasm and passion from young people, and it's for the movement that's started by and led by young people. So they're certainly taking the lead and really putting a stake in the ground to say, we're not going to wait for a political leader to come to us and talk about the issues that's important to them, but we're going to tell them what's important to us, and they're going to put that on their agenda. So it's certainly promising. We're also seeing other polling that there is a lot of young people saying we're enthusiastic about coming out to vote in November, and also the suggestion that they actually may be signing up with political parties, especially the Democratic Party, more than they did before.

BH: Well is the Democratic Party the party of choice for young people? I mean, some vote Republican, and there are a lot of independents.

KG: That's correct. And there should never be an assumption that young people are all liberals or will be voting Democratic. There's always been a significant, though minority, of young people who are Republicans, but also an even bigger group that's considered sort of fiscal conservative in some ways, while they hold socially progressive views. So all candidates have both opportunities and risk.

BH: And looking ahead beyond 2018, we're going to the 2020 presidential election coming up before you know it. What are your predictions looking at your numbers for that?

KG: You know, there are a lot of predictions out there, but what I would say is this: there are a lot of people turning 18 by the time 2020 comes around. There are, in fact, 22 million young people by '20. And the reason to think about that ahead of time is to think that we can start talking about election and voting, and even pre-registering young people, well before the actual election comes. And there's been a lot of efforts, both in terms of state education laws and election laws to engage young people early on. But if anything, what we're seeing in the youth movement today around gun violence is one of the most promising things we've seen in youth engagement. And that's because of the leadership they take.

BH: OK, thanks so much for talking with us.

KG: You're very welcome.

BH: That's Kei-Kawashima Ginsberg of the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, which promotes civic engagement.

The full study from the Tisch College can be found here.


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