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Almost half of young voters who signed up in 2018 didn’t cast ballots

December 27, 2018

Free advice to candidates thinking they can sign up young voters in Spokane County and get them to the polls to win an election: Data from the 2018 election says you’d be better off hanging out in senior centers than on college campuses.

Almost half the 5,180 Spokane County residents ages 18 to 25 who registered to vote in 2018 didn’t cast a ballot in the November general election, data from the county Elections Office analyzed by The Spokesman-Review shows. The areas with the greatest number of newly registered voters who didn’t vote were in precincts around the county’s two major college campuses, Gonzaga and Eastern Washington universities.

The percentage of newly registered residents who cast ballots increased gradually with age. Three out of 5 voted among 26- to 35-year-olds; nearly 2 out of 3 voted of those 36 to 45. For seniors over 65, more than 4 out of 5 who signed up in 2018 voted in the general election.

Over the past quarter-century, Washington has made it increasingly easier to register and vote in its elections.

Residents can register online, by mail, in person and when they get or renew a driver’s license. The counties mail ballots to all 4.3 million registered voters, and this year the state covered the postage-paid envelopes to make it easier – particularly for young people who told lawmakers they often don’t have stamps – to mail back their ballots.

“Young voters have always been a challenge,” Secretary of State Kim Wyman said when told of the results of the analysis.

The results for those who registered in 2018 aren’t significantly different from that of all Spokane County voters, regardless of when they registered, in November’s election. But they underscore a condition of voter participation that people familiar with American politics have long recognized – the older the voter, the more likely they are to actually cast a ballot.

After they get their first job, buy a home or see how taxes are affecting their lives in a way different from when they were in college, they are more likely to vote, Wyman said.

Despite the long-established challenge of poor turnout among young voters, some candidates in the 2018 election made a special effort to sign them up. U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and her Democratic challenger Lisa Brown both had registration efforts on college campuses in Eastern Washington’s 5th Congressional District race.

“Registration is, obviously, just the first step,” said Travis Ridout, distinguished professor of government, philosophy and public policy at Washington State University. “Young people are transient and (registration) doesn’t necessarily keep up with where they are.”

For brand new registrants, some may skip voting because they don’t have “the habit ingrained in them,” he said.

A chicken-and-egg situation may also be at work, Ridout said. Candidates know older voters are more likely to vote, so they make speeches, run ads and stress issues important to those age groups.

“From the perspective of my students, the politicians are catering to old people, not to them,” he said. “Young people don’t necessarily see the connection with what’s going on in their lives.”

Wyman, who has been active in politics for a quarter-century, said the biggest factor in driving turnout in a state like Washington where registration and voting are easy, is who or what is on the ballot.

“To get someone to vote, they have to have an interest in an issue or a candidate,” she said.

The year 2018 set a record for voting in a midterm election. The general election had ballot issues on guns, climate change and taxes, plus Eastern Washington and two other congressional districts had competitive House races, Wyman said.

Young voters are more likely to get excited about voting in presidential years, but to a certain extent, 2018 had the feel of a presidential year, with the Democratic “resistance” trying to rein in President Donald Trump and the right trying to keep U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi from becoming House speaker, she said.

But 2018’s higher turnout probably wasn’t fueled by younger voters, she added.

It’s the state’s job to provide a secure system to remove barriers to registering and voting, and make sure voters have the information they need, Wyman said. But it’s the job of the candidates and the campaigns, not the state, to increase turnout.

The state has two challenges in its efforts to get more people, especially young residents, to vote, said Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, a longtime proponent of finding ways to increase participation.

The first is making it easier to register, he said. While that has become easier in recent years, new laws will go even further starting next year, allowing residents to register and vote on Election Day, and automatically registering most people 18 and older when they receive an enhanced driver’s license.

At whatever rate those new registrants vote, that’s still more participants in democracy, Billig said.

The second challenge is finding ways to get young voters who register to feel invested enough in the system to cast a ballot, he said.

On that the state has more work to do, Billig said. Young people are more likely to participate if they think their elected officials are listening to them and if some of their elected officials look like them. When they get excited about an issue or a candidate, they vote.

“It doesn’t matter how motivated or excited you are if you can’t exercise that right because you’re not registered,” he said.

Many campaigns were focused in 2018 on registering young people, he said, and the lower rate of voting might suggest changes for future campaigns: “One of the lessons could be a need to be focused on turning out their voters.”

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