Stop Blaming Young Voters for Not Turning Out for Sanders

Sanders is losing to Biden because America is excluding young voters, persistently and systemically.

Young voters surrounding Bernie Sanders
Sarah Silbiger / Bloomberg / Getty

It is not over. But the end appears near.

Senator Bernie Sanders needs an unconventional swing to become the new comeback kid. He needs more “other swing voters” to swing his way during the Democratic primaries instead of swinging toward not voting. These other swing voters are Americans who swing between voting Democrat and not voting (or voting third party)—and help decide primaries and general elections. Let’s not confuse them with the better-known swing voters who shift between voting Democrat and Republican in general elections. Let’s not confuse them with nonvoters who never vote in primaries or general elections.

These other swing voters are more likely to be young. Younger voters generally favor progressive candidates such as Sanders. Older voters generally favor moderate candidates such as former Vice President Joe Biden. Older Americans are more likely than younger Americans to vote.

After only 20 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds voted in the 2014 midterm elections—an all-time low—voting rates of younger voters rose substantially in the 2018 midterms. But voting rates of older voters rose substantially, too, leaving the voting gap almost unchanged. The average voting gap between the youngest and oldest age groups in Iowa, Georgia, and Delaware was 41.3 percent in 2018, similar to the 42.6 percent gap in 2006.

When younger Americans did swing to voting in the 2020 Democratic primaries, they usually cast ballots for Sanders by large margins, even in states that Sanders lost by large margins. Take Michigan, where Biden won by nearly 17 points. Sanders won 18-to-24-year-olds by 61 points; 25-to-29-year-olds by 56 points; and 30-to-39-year-olds by 19 points—while losing 40-to-49-year-olds by 6 points; 50-to-64-year-olds by 44 points and voters aged 65 or over by 52 points. Biden prevailed in Michigan because the two oldest voting categories cast a decisive 52 percent of the ballots.

Sanders needs to grow the share of the youth vote in the Democratic primaries to overtake Biden’s delegate lead. But the opposite has happened thus far. According to exit polls, in no state on Super Tuesday that catapulted Biden into the lead did people younger than 30 make up more than 20 percent of the electorate, and in most states they accounted for 15 percent or less. Younger voters have represented an even smaller share of the Democratic primary vote totals than they did four years ago, according to exit polls.

But why? Why does this age voting disparity exist and persist? Why is it growing? Some Americans have been taking the easy way out—people blaming. It is easy to blame Sanders and his supporters for naively relying on the unreliable youth vote to carry him to the Democratic nomination. It is easy to blame the Sanders campaign for not turning out the youth vote. It is easy to blame young voters for not turning out for Sanders—all their rallying in person and on social media failing to result in voting. But what if something else is happening?

There are only two causes for the historical and ongoing voting disparities between younger and older Americans. Either there is something wrong with young Americans as a group or there is something wrong with our voting policies. Either other swing voters are unreliable, or our voting system is unreliable. Either there is something wrong with people, or there is something wrong with policy.

There are certainly young individuals who are unreliable, lazy, cynical, self-absorbed, or apathetic. But there are older individuals who exude these behaviors, too. To say the reason young Americans are voting less than older voters is because younger Americans are more unreliable, lazy, cynical, self-absorbed or apathetic about politics than their older counterparts is to say that something is wrong with young Americans as a group. To say that something is wrong with young Americans as a group is to say that something is inferior about young Americans as a group. To say that something is inferior about any age group is to express an ageist idea. To say young Americans are lazier than older Americans is just as ageist as saying older workers are lazier than younger workers; it’s just as ageist as saying older workers are checked out and younger workers are having to pick up their slack.

This is not reality. This is real ageism.

If Biden wins the Democratic nomination and loses to Donald J. Trump, I fear that the moderate Democrats who endorsed and nominated him will refuse to accept blame for the loss. I fear that moderate Democrats will not learn their lesson that moderate candidates may no longer be electable in the Republican age of Trump. If the aftermath of the 2016 election defeat is any guide, I suspect moderate Democrats would say Biden lost because of unjust electoral policies that advantaged Trump and disadvantaged Biden. I suspect they would point to voter suppression policies—from voter ID laws, to voter purges, to agonizingly long lines—that allowed Trump to narrowly win key swing states such as Wisconsin, Texas, Florida, Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina. They’d point to the retrograde electoral-college system that allowed Trump to again win the presidency through electoral votes after massively losing the popular vote. They’d point to the distressing problem of unchecked and unidentified political money that supplied the Trump campaign with more resources than any other incumbent in history. They’d point to the Trump administration’s hands-off policy that allowed pro-Trump foreign actors to interfere in the election. They’d point to the hands-off policy of social-media companies that paved the way for Trump’s billion-dollar disinformation campaign, microtargeting potential supporters (to vote Trump) and likely opponents (to not vote).

Moderate Democrats would be right. These policies are unjust. They’d be right to say these policies need reforming to ensure fair presidential elections, to heal American democracy. They were right to ally with progressive Democrats to pass the voting rights and anti-corruption bill, H.R. 1, in the House of Representatives last March. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her lieutenants should be forever praised for opening the session of the most diverse House of Representatives in American history with this historic bill.

Moderate Democrats seem willing to identify and introduce policies that would allow a moderate (or progressive) Democrat to no longer be at a disadvantage in a general election against a Republican. Some moderate Democrats seem less willing to identify and introduce policies that would no longer give moderate candidates an advantage in primary elections against progressive candidates. Some moderate Democrats seem more than willing to blame the behaviors of young people for their lower voting rates in the primaries—and then blame voting policies for Democrats’ lower voting rates in general elections. Some moderate Democrats seem more than willing to live in this contradiction.

But where is the evidence that young people as a group are so much more cynical, lazy, self-absorbed, and unreliable than older voters as a group such that these behaviors account for the massive age voting gap? Anecdotes are only evidence of the behaviors of particular individuals. Studies disprove the common ageist idea that young people are disinterested in politics. In fact, in 2016, 90 percent of young Americans reported an interest in politics and 80 percent said they intended to vote, but only 43 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 ended up voting.

“Simply put, many young people want to participate, care about what is happens in the political arena, and plan to participate. But they find doing so too big of a hassle to actually follow through on their good intentions,” wrote John B. Holbein, who co-authored with D. Sunshine Hillygus the new book Making Young Voters: Converting Civic Attitudes into Civic Action.

Simply put, the reason young Americans have been less likely to vote than older voters is the same reason for the better part of American history people of color have been less likely to vote than white people; why women were long less likely to vote than men; why poor people have been less likely to vote than wealthier people; why prisoners have been less likely to vote than non-prisoners. For the better part of American history, Americans have been taught there is something behaviorally wrong with prisoners, with poor people, with women, with people of color—with young people—and not with the policies stopping or suppressing their voting. These ageist ideas cover up the ageist policies that make it tougher for young people to vote, just as racist ideas cover up the racist policies that make it tougher for people of color to vote, and just as the intersection of ageist and racist policies make it the toughest for young people of color to vote.

Older Americans are more likely to be registered than those younger Americans who are at the beginning of their voting life. But voter registration rules are often confusing—and people under 30 change their address more than twice as often as people over 30, forcing young people to navigate the confusing registration process in state after state. Take my family. I’m a Millennial. My parents are Baby Boomers. In the past 20 years, my parents have moved once, from Virginia to retirement in Florida. Excluding two summer internships during college, I’ve moved 12 times between five states and the District of Columbia in the past 20 years.

Americans need to act like the states are united and establish a single, nationwide registration process that allows all voters to easily update our residency when we move. One group of political scientists calls moving “the key stumbling block in the trip to the polls.” And when we move, and if we are registered in multiple states, then we can be purged from voting rolls without being notified, as New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice has found.

Policies making it easier to register (and remain registered) to vote make it easier for young people to vote. Indeed, 55 percent of black youth, 45 percent of Latino youth, and 61 percent of white youth cited “not being registered” as the main reason they did not vote in the 2012 election.

Automatic voter registration markedly increases the number of first-time young voters. Same-day registration, which allows people to register when they come to cast a ballot on Election Day, expands the voting rates of young people by as much as 10 percentage points. But same-day registration is on the books in only 21 states and the District of Columbia.

Allowing Americans to preregister to vote when they are 16 years old substantially increases the voting rates of Americans under 30. But preregistration policies are on the books in only 18 states and the District of Columbia. Taken together, same-day registration and preregistration policies have been found to close the voting gap between older and young Americans by about a third.

Perhaps more of the voting age gap could be closed if the United States were to lower the voting age to 16 years old. To say 16-year-olds are not mature enough to vote, or that they could be too easily swayed by their parents, is to ignore all the immature 36-year-olds routinely swaying the votes of spouses. To say 16-year-olds are not mature enough to vote is ageist.

Perhaps more of the voting age gap could be closed if all high school students were required to take a civics class that systematically instructed them on the voting process. Civics instruction through three standard high school courses started to decline in the 1960s, coinciding with a slump in the voting rates of young people—which makes sense, since there’s a link between civics courses and voter participation.

Perhaps more of the voting age gap could be closed if states met young people where they are—online. From 2000 to 2016, 32 states started allowing voters, mostly living oversees or serving in the military, to cast their ballots online. But in 2016, security experts and senior Obama-administration officials balked at expanding online voting over fear for the integrity of elections. New blockchain technology being used in states like West Virginia, however, provides the promise of a scalable and secure online-voting system.

With online voting, young (and older) people would not have to overcome the voter suppression tactics of closing polling stations, of changing the locations of polling stations, of placing polling stations in inaccessible locations, of understaffing polling stations, of equipping polling stations with voting machines prone to breaking—all to breed the confusion and long lines that lead to people not voting.

But with Republicans and moderate Democrats entrenched in federal and state power, I don’t see nationwide online voting on the horizon and I don’t see nationwide same-day registration on the horizon.

“Same-day registration often faces quiet opposition from powerful elected Democrats, many of whom came to power years ago and who are re-elected thanks to an electorate familiar (or even loyal) to them,” the voting-rights advocates Charlotte Hill and Jacob Grumbach wrote in The New York Times.

Both Republicans and moderate Democrats share a joint interest in not increasing the voting rates of young people. Republicans lose general elections to Democrats when young people vote in high numbers. Moderate Democrats lose primary elections to progressive Democrats when young people vote in high numbers. As Hill and Grumbach added, “Nobody wants to be a victim of the next Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Ayanna Pressley.”

I do not know how serious some moderate Democrats are about the vitality of American democracy. I do not know if they value the vitality of American democracy over the vitality of their political careers.

Sanders is losing to Biden because America is losing young voters, persistently and systemically. Instead of relieving the victim of these ageist voting policies, Americans are blaming the victim with ageist ideas.

Blaming the victim is the American political creed. Its end does not appear near.