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Age gap: Voting rates fall among young, remain steady among old

by Tim Anderson ~ July/August 2015 ~ Stateline Midwest »
In the last election cycle, partisan control of the U.S. Congress, the nation’s state legislatures and 36 governorships were all up for grabs. A vast majority of the nation’s youngest eligible voters seemingly didn’t care. Only 23 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds voted — the lowest participation rate in elections among this group since the U.S. Census Bureau began collecting the data in 1978.
Over the past three-and-a-half decades, their voting rate has fallen by more than 30 percent. (Declines are occurring from nearly every non-presidential election year to the next.) Meanwhile, participation among the nation’s oldest voters, those 65 and older, has remained steady, at around 60 percent.
“These age differences cut across racial and ethnic groups as well,” notes Thom File, a U.S. Census Bureau sociologist and author of the July study on voting trends. “Regardless of whether we’re looking at non-Hispanic whites, non-Hispanic blacks or Hispanics, voting rates tend to increase significantly with age.”
A host of factors can cause young people to stay out of elections: not knowing the candidates, not caring about politics or not trusting politicians, for example. Another cause is not being registered to vote. Among all eligible voters, 71 percent are registered, but that number falls to 59 percent among 18- to 24-year-olds, according to the Center for Voting and Democracy.
To close this gap, the center recommends that states pre-register 16-year-olds and, at the same time, disseminate information to them about the elections process. In recent years, many states have taken steps to make voter registration easier and, in the case of Oregon, “automatic.” In that state, with the passage of HB 2177 earlier this year, every person who obtains or renews a driver’s license now becomes eligible to vote.
Six years ago, the Minnesota Legislature passed a similar measure, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty. While “automatic” registration isn’t yet common, the online option now is. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, at least 28 states offer online voter registration, including Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota and Nebraska.
Last year, too, Indiana offered a new way for its residents to register to vote — on their smartphone, via a “full-service app” created by the secretary of state’s office. Same-day voter registration is also on the rise, with Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin now offering it in the Midwest. (North Dakota does not have voter registration; it is the only state in the country without such a requirement.)
Last year, for the first time in Illinois, most of the state’s 17-year-olds had the chance to cast ballots in primary elections. Their participation was the result of a bill passed by the General Assembly (HB 226 in 2013) that opened up voting to 17-year-olds who will turn 18 before the general election.
According to the Center for Voting and Democracy, 17-year-olds can vote in primaries and caucuses in half of the U.S. states, including seven in the Midwest: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and Ohio.
Their participation is either the result of state law or party rules. (In Kansas and North Dakota, the center reports, 17-year-olds may take part in the Democratic caucuses, but are barred from participating in the Republican caucus.)
Rise of early voting
One other big change documented in the Census Bureau report is the rise in “alternative voting”: casting ballots before Election Day. Between 1998 and 2014, the percentage of people voting by mail or during a state-sanctioned early voting period rose from 10.5 percent to 31.2 percent.
With the exception of Michigan, every state in the Midwest now allows some version of in-person early voting, and in states such as Iowa, Kansas and Ohio, one-third or more of ballots were cast early in the 2012 election.