Voices & Choices

Primary Focus: Youth Engagement in Primaries

Primary Focus: Youth Engagement in Primaries

Zoom In: The almost 18 voting bloc

On just another regular day in the office, FairVote received a call from a high school student in Michigan. He along with his friends and relatives in various states across the country have been following the primary election for both parties. His motivation for calling, he said, was the sudden realization that while all of his other friends in other states could vote in the upcoming primary, he wouldn’t be able to because Michigan doesn’t allow 17-year-olds to vote in presidential primaries, despite the fact that they will be 18 at the time of the general election. Him and his friends had watched numerous debates, researched candidates’ platforms, and studied the issues to stay informed in anticipation of participating in their first election when they turn 18. It was unfair, he thought, that a simple difference in state lines meant his friends would have a voice in their presidential primary process while he would not.

FairVote is a national advocate for 17-year-old participation in primary elections. We provide resources for citizens, legislators, and researchers who are advocating on this issue. Currently, only twenty-one states permit 17-year-olds who will turn 18 on or before Election Day to vote in one or both political parties’ nominating contest. The logic is pretty straightforward: If a citizen will be voting for a candidate in a general election, they should have the opportunity to help choose who will be on the general election ballot.

Zoom Out: Youth votes are viable

The voices of young voters matter. The current election cycle is loaded with examples of presidential candidates actively reaching out to millennials. For instance, Ted Cruz kicked off his campaign at Liberty University, and many candidates including Bernie Sanders added Snapchat to their online engagement strategy. These actions show how serious candidates are about reaching this growing voting bloc. In 2008, nearly half (44.3%) of the 18 through 24 year-old voting age population participated in the presidential election. This represented a 12-point increase from the previous open seat presidential election in 2000.

In addition to direct outreach, candidates are addressing unique issues that young voters prioritize. By far, college affordability is the most galvanizing topic that draws  America’s youth to engage in the political system. Young voters are also mobilizing around a long-term solution to social security woes and economic growth. Presidential candidates in both major parties recognize the opportunity to win over an often overlooked voting bloc by discussing these issues and reaching out to this group in innovative ways.

Focus: Expanding 17-year-old voting matters

Seventeen year-old primary voting provides clear benefits. First, involvement in primaries gives voters a stake in the general election. First-time voters will have greater incentive to support their party’s nominee if they play a role in the nominating process. Additionally, studies show that voting is a habitual behavior, and the earlier someone casts their first vote--even by a few months--the more likely they are to establish a pattern of civic participation and vote in every election thereafter. Seventeen year-old primary voting not only attracts more short-term participation in the November election, it also sets young people on the path of becoming lifelong voters. Therefore, Democrats and Republicans should have an obvious interest in creating a national standard and ushering young voters into their party.

It is perfectly legal to lower the age for primary voters, and it is relatively easy to do so. State parties have broad control over the nomination system. For primaries, they can advocate for 17 year-old primary voting under the First Amendment freedom of association rights. For caucuses, parties do not have to consult the state government at all. From the Iowa caucuses to the District of Columbia primaries, parties have implemented this policy of greater inclusion and direct engagement. New Mexico’s legislature passed a bill in their recent session to enact 17-year-old primary voting. In a blog, FairVote provides an update on current legislative efforts across the country.

It is a longstanding truism that a party must energize its base and increase voter turnout to win the general election in November. Reaching out to young voters is an important component of speaking to the concerns of individuals who have not previously voted. Undoubtedly, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are capitalizing on this strategy. The current primary contests may not be decided by 17-year-olds, but first-time primary voters will hold a unique power in swaying the election.

Image Source: Dronethusiast


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