Ingram Blog

New Adult Voters: Activism, Apathy, or Angst?

In 1988, I voted for the first time. George H. W. Bush won handily (426 to 111 electoral votes and +7.8 percent of the popular vote)—he received 98 percent of the vote in my small Michigan village, so my single vote one way or the other didn’t seem to matter at all. Now that the country is more divided than ever, and the races so close, new voters and their views of civic duties, rights, and privileges seemingly have a real say in the direction of our country, at least on paper. But how do today’s new adults look at politics and voting?

“You should care about other people!” I heard my 18-year-old daughter Laurel yelling into her phone. She had just discovered that her (now ex-) boyfriend doesn’t vote. This is the daughter who physically attacked the class bully twice her size in first grade when he made a girl cry by saying Santa Claus was fake during the mock election (Santa did eventually beat the Easter Bunny and Flat Stanley, I assume thanks to Christmas-time bribes made in his name). When she was five, she wrote a “manifesto” in Sharpie on her freshly painted pink wall. It involved alien abduction and the Chupacabra and was calculated to get her a nice role in government if either of them took over. So when I overheard her end of that phone call, I knew this boyfriend was finished… not voting is one of her many lines in the sand. Some people seem to be born activists, and not surprisingly, they see informed voting—regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum—as a duty of living in a representative democracy.

“I believe it is every citizen’s obligation to vote, otherwise we risk losing accurate representation in our government,” writes Laurel. “After the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin what type of government the United States would have. He replied, ‘A republic, if you can keep it.’ It’s essential that we exercise our right to choose our own governing body, or we risk losing freedom to tyrants and oligarchs.”

Not every new voter shares Laurel’s views, though. In fact, a 2017 article in The Economist found that in the richest democracies around the world, young people are voting at a much lower rate than those over 25, and only one-fifth of American millennials turned out to vote in the 2014 U.S. congressional election. “‘Millennials do not see voting as a duty, and therefore do not feel morally obliged to do it,’ says Rob Ford of Manchester University. ‘Rather, they regard it as the duty of politicians to woo them. They see parties not as movements deserving of loyalty, but as brands they can choose between or ignore.’” This consumer-based view of politics and government has the potential for years to come to confound politicians, who tend to focus on the negatives of the other party or their core (and not new and exciting) party platforms rather than on how their own positions can attract young people enough for them to tune in. Instead of voting for the candidate with the most similar views, new voters see dropping out of the political system and ignoring the election cycle as a valid third option. And ignore they do, or at least most of them did in the volatile 2016 election.

Although younger Americans continued the tradition of voting at a much lower rate than older Americans in 2016 (ages 65+ at 70.9 percent, ages 45 to 64 at 66.6 percent, ages 30 to 44 at 58.7 percent, and ages 18 to 29 at 46.1 percent), that trend showed a slight shift in direction. In 2016, the youngest voters, ages 18 to 29, claimed a slightly increased turnout, compared to a decreased or flat turnout from every other age group: 


Still, fewer than half of the potential voters in Generation Z have voted in the past two elections, and about half of them do not associate with one of the major parties, which means that the parties do not focus on their issues, according to Robert Montenegro in Big Think. “That last bit is especially important. It illustrates the self-perpetuating hopelessness felt by many young voters. The reason millennials don’t vote is because politics doesn’t serve their interests. The reason politics doesn’t serve their interests is because they don’t vote.” Hanna Brooks Olsen also points out in Medium that many young voters have to overcome voting barriers at a disproportional rate, such as states that do not accept college IDs or out-of-state driver’s licenses, or states with reduced polling places and little public transportation, or long polling lines that prevent students with a day full of classes or hourly jobs from making it to the front of the line in time to vote.

Since public libraries typically rely on funding that directly (as in the case of library ballot questions) or indirectly (when elected officials create and pass the budgets) comes from the results of the voting booth, libraries have a vested interest in encouraging people—particularly people who are already in the library and appreciate their services—to vote. Some libraries serve as polling places, and many provide voter registration information and materials, such as The Indianapolis Public Library’s Info Guide page linking to resources from how to get an Indiana State ID, to how to absentee vote, to an explanation of the Electoral College and Election Day rights. Libraries can also help new and future voters of all ages by carrying titles on the history and how-to of voting and displaying them with the voting aids and promotional materials about any library ballot questions. Library Journal reports that 2017 marked a banner year for library ballot measures, with a 98 percent pass rate among the 133 measures—the best success level in the past ten years of tracking. To get started on your campaign to enlist voters, visit our lists of suggested voting and government titles today. 

-Ann Lehue, MSIS, Manager, Collection Development Programs