Why don’t younger people vote in local elections?

It’s a great and confounding question, isn’t it? The folks at the Knight Foundation tried to answer it.


Local government often has more real-world impact on the everyday lives of citizens than other levels of government. Police departments, libraries and schools all fall under local government jurisdiction, and for homeowners, local government significantly afects their cost of living through taxation. Even the White House says “most Americans have more daily contact with their state and local governments than with the federal government.”

Voting is perhaps the quintessential indicator of civic engagement and a well-functioning democracy. For young adults, voting indicates current and future attachment to the cities where they live. Local elections, including the candidates and ballot initiatives, provide a crucial opportunity for residents to influence how their city approaches and invests in the issues that matter most to them. But whereas voter turnout for presidential elections nears 60 percent, local election turnout is often a third of that or lower. Among millennials (20- to 34-year-olds) in urban areas, this turnout gap is even more pronounced.

Local elections are missing millions of millennial voters who participate in national elections but not ones in their cities. This led Knight Foundation to embark on research to explore factors that may be hampering turnout in local elections among millennials, focusing specifically on millennials who participated in the last national elections but not in their local elections. The research aims to identify the causes of low millennial voter turnout in local elections and possible approaches for encouraging more informed local voting which brings more citizen voice to local government.

There’s a decent amount to digests in the report, which is fairly concise and easy to read. I suspect there are a few things that wouldn’t have occurred to us older folks. Among the points made are ensuring that younger voters know who their local elected officials are (*), talking about voting not as a responsibility or duty but as an opportunity to do things, and reaching younger voters via their preferred means of communication, which is to say mostly social media. Any campaign interested in doing more than just talking to the usual suspects ought to read this. What do you think?

(*) – It’s easy to make fun of “millennials” for being out of touch with the world around them, but I know that when I was a 20-something, I had at best a limited idea of who (besides the Mayor and maybe my district Council member) represented me in Houston. I had no idea who anyone but the Mayor was when I was a college student in San Antonio. We can be snarky about it, or we can try to do something about it.

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6 Responses to Why don’t younger people vote in local elections?

  1. Katy Anders says:

    Not sure there’s an easy way to address this. Local elections for school board or community college trustee or whatever aren’t as sexy as the Presidency. But each vote makes a heck of a lot more difference.

  2. Nicole C says:

    “…reaching younger voters via their preferred means of communication…”

    This one’s huge. It doesn’t have to just be social media, but, for example, I’m 25. I don’t receive the paper or watch the news very often. Honestly, blogs like this one are my biggest source for local news, and I know many people my age who don’t look for it at all. We have to know there’s an election and what’s at stake to get out and vote.

  3. Ross says:

    Nicole summarizes the problem succinctly. Young people just don’t care enough to look into issues that affect them, waiting instead to be told they need to look at something. We aren’t your parents, and if you don’t care what happens in politics, it’s not up to the rest of us to keep you informed.

  4. Steven Houston says:

    Is it really a problem? Those unwilling to invest the time and energy to learn about the issues probably shouldn’t vote. Contrary to what those who want to lead us seem to think, not all issues can be broken down to a tweet or two, nor a goofy campaign slogan. Yet gaining a working knowledge of even complex issues really doesn’t take that much work or time, just a willingness to want to look past so-called “common knowledge” as espoused by people that want a hand in your pocket.

  5. Manuel Barrera says:

    Maybe we should give persons an exam before anyone can vote, we will begin with an exam on the judges. Steven Houston, “You don’t know nothing” from Game of Thrones.

  6. Steven Houston says:

    MB, I prefer a self selecting model given the history of election exams.

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