Young Voter Turnout Really Is Terrible

In doing research to moderate An Orlando Exchange | Election Roundup, last week I found out just how dismal voter turnout among people my age and younger really is by researching turnout numbers from my local elections office in Orange County, Florida. I already knew the so called “youth vote turnout” was bad, but I didn’t realize how bad.

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National Turnout Statistics by Age


For our August 2016 primary (not the presidential primary) where many important decisions are made about local politics a measly 3.7% of people aged 20-24 showed up. I get it; I wasn’t invest in local politics at 21. Many in the 24 and under set are transient and focused on college. Many aren’t sure whether to register to vote at their parents’ address or a dorm location and may be considerably more invested in campus politics than local or even state politics. However, the 25-34 age group wasn’t much better at 5.7%. By comparison 47% of the 65+ contingent voted. For the 2014 midterms turnout was better for all groups, but still skewed. Residents aged 25-34 showed up at a healthier rate of 22%. But that group was still handily beat out by 65+ set at 71%! This meant that while there are 60% more residents in the 25-34 bracket in Orange County, nearly twice as many individuals 65+ cast ballots.

I’m not making the argument that young people’s votes are more important than senior citizens, but given this state of affairs it’s no wonder that there is such a disconnect on national issues based polling, and how many of our politicians vote while in office. If young people’s perspectives on a range of issues are undervalued relative to the size of our population,  it’s probably our own fault because their weight in Congress or City council are more representative of the relative number of our ballots.

Many people, particularly the young, are worried that their vote doesn’t count. Here are two reasons that it does:

My concern goes beyond who wins each seat, to who politicians listen to once elected. Given these numbers, it would be very easy for an elected official to look at a poll of “what millennials want” whether it’s bicycle facilities, better parks, or immigration reform and say “why should I care?” If younger voters don’t turn out, then why should these politicians care what we think? Since age statistics appear to be released only for the election as a whole and not for each race, it may not even matter if you cast a ballot for your local city councilor at all as long as you show up. If you show up and only vote for the Soil and Water Board leaving everything else blank, your vote still counts when your congressman or city councilor looks at the demographic results of the election which will influence their outlook for the next two, four or six years they are in office.

A focus on local voting can also help young people to understand that, even if they are frustrated with national politics or do the math that 1 vote in 100 million or so for President has a negligible effect on the outcome, their vote absolutely counts in the elections closest to home, which arguably have a more direct effect on their lives than the President or their Senator. These are the elections that impact whether your street gets re-paved, whether a new park is built, if and how the police patrol your neighborhood, whether the buses run on time, or whether a new microbrewery get its zoning. In 2008, one Orlando (pop. 255,483) city councilor won by 42 votes. In the City of Edgewood (pop. 2,503 in 2010), a councilor won by just 12 votes and the different between the 2nd and 3rd runners up (possibly determining who would make it to a run-off*) was a mere 2 votes.

Another huge issue in Florida, a closed primary state, is that a large number of voters are No Party Affiliation (NPA). In my county this is more than 1/4 of voters. This has two major effects. Many people don’t show up for the primary not realizing (or not caring) that they are eligible to vote for many local offices and occasionally referendums. Second, this has potential effect of radicalizing the parties precisely because the citizenry has become more moderate because one would anticipate that most NPA voters have less polarized views than their party-loyal counterparts and thus would be more likely to elevate moderate or unconventional candidates to the general election ticket. Those same NPA voters are then, unsurprisingly, disappointed in their choices come November.

What does this have to do with urbanism? Young voters tend to favor many elements of urbanism such as public transportation and city living. Turnout is particularly bad in primaries and off-cycle midterm elections where many local offices and referendums are determined, not to mention Congressional seats that help determine our federal transportation policy. Some local elections are even worse. Our local municipal elections for the City of Orlando and Winter Park are on different days from any national election. The most recent Orlando mayoral election held off-cycle in November 2015 had an overall turnout of just 14.7% despite a get out the vote effort. Now the good news about this is that those who did show up were really invested in local politics (I do worry about those who turn up to vote for President and then make under-informed or partisan decisions about local offices). Still this lack of interest has very real consequences. Urbanful wrote that several 2014 transit initiatives failed specifically because of lack of turnout of the under 30 set.

Whatever you think about politics, for me the answer is clear: a) even if you don’t know who to vote for show up and vote for at least office or ballot issue to represent your demographic if you want politicians to care what you think and b) if you really want your vote to count, do some research and vote local. Now go vote, not just this year, but in two years and at every primary and local election in between. If you live in Florida you can have ballots conveniently and automatically delivered to your house for all of these elections; so there’s really no excuse not to get out (or stay in) and vote.

Note: I am not an elections expert. Calculations are my own unless otherwise referenced and are not warrantied. They were assembled based on the Orange County Supervisor of Elections with Census 2010 and ACS 2015 population which includes some residents not eligible to vote (such as resident aliens or those ineligible due to felony records). However I do not believe this variation would have a significant effect on the results given the margin of differences. Turnout numbers are typically based on either eligible voters or registered voters. I did not have access to those denominators while doing this research. 

*I did not find evidence of whether a run-off was actually held for the City of Edgewood election.
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