Engaging Young Voters

“Young voters are crucial. The trend over recent years has been for them to drift away.  So anything that gets young voters interested in the electoral process not only has an immediate effect, but has an effect for years and years.” — Howard Rheingold

How do we reach young voters?  And how do we keep young people engaged in politics?  These questions come up frequently during discussions about voter turnout, campaigning, and the future of our country.  Recently, I had the privilege of participating in a community discussion about outreach to young voters with young voters themselves.  The small group consisted of four young adult college-students and three older participants (including yours truly).  The discussion focused on ways to reach out to young voters for increased engagement from the perspectives of the young participants themselves.  The ideas and insights gleaned from our dialogue are summarized below:

Focus on Campuses

Campuses should be a focus for political action, as young people spend much of their time in school, whether it be high school or college. 

Make the Political Personal

Effective ways to reach out to young people include:

  • Peer-to-peer contact.
  • Recognizable public figures (e.g., former or current candidates). 

Encouraging celebrities or other recognizable figures can be meaningful because 1) they care enough to discuss issues that are relevant to young people and 2) they may be seen as authentic or relatable to young people, thus making the political personal.

Focus on Relevant Issues

As an organizer trying to increase young voter engagement, it is beneficial to work with student issue groups on campuses to identify issues about which students care.  Key issues may include:

  • Wage gap
  • Tuition
  • Healthcare

Avoid Overwhelm

If reaching out to young voters, be careful not to overwhelm them.  Nowadays, students lead stressful lives and are at risk for anxiety and depression, so repeated contact by groups or political parties can easily become overwhelming.

Phone It In

Text-banking was suggested as a useful method for reaching students, particularly those who are busy or introverted.  Texts inquiring if students are:

  • Registered to vote?
  • Do they know where to vote? (And a link to the necessary information in case the answer is “no”).
  • Are they aware of the kinds of civic activities happening, such as upcoming local elections, City Council meetings, or rallies in which they might be inclined to participate? 

Keep Politics Local

Focus more on local issues than national issues to keep the issue conversation relevant and manageable.   For example, young voters may not be sure how to prevent a wall being built at the border, but they may feel that they can help to address inequality in their city.

Create Connections on Social Media

If you are planning an event, be sure to create a Facebook event page and invite people via that page.  Also, follow-up with invited guests via Facebook Messenger to:

  1.  Make sure that guests saw your invitation (since there’s a lot of stuff happening on Facebook and elsewhere).
  2.  Make the invitation personal by using your personal profile, so that your guests can see who you are and get to “know” you before committing to attending your event.

Incentivize Action

Students may be more motivated to get involved if they know that there is an opportunity for networking or to learn about available internships.  Students have a lot of things that demand their attention, so make sure that  the  “what’s in it for them" is clearly communicated.

Flair for the Dramatic

Drama drives interest in political activities and discourse, such as debates.  These days, any attention is good attention, so it can be beneficial to highlight the "dramatic" aspects of an event or activity, such as protests, townhall meetings, or sit-ins, to generate interest and increase participation.  

Be Inclusive

Use inclusive language when communicating with young people.  Even common phrases, such as “you guys” can be seen as non-inclusive, so it is important to use socially-conscious language when speaking and writing to younger demographics.  Consider partnering up with advocacy groups to better understand  “aware” communication and learn progressive language.  The challenge is that language is always evolving, so building your network of progressive people and organizations can help keep you current. 

The young participants in our discussion offered many suggestions and insights to help boost outreach efforts to young voters.  Part of  effectively reaching out to young voters is actually listening to their concerns, questions, and ideas.  Meaningful personal interactions with young people to "make the political personal" can help improve efficacy, thereby increasing political engagement and action. 

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Heather ConklinComment