Why don’t young people vote?
It’s a question I hear a lot, and a fair one—it’s true that young Rhode Islanders vote at noticeably lower rates than their more aged counterparts. As a result, young people are often reproached for their lack of engagement and left out of important political debates. Instead of admonishing and dismissing an entire generation, let’s make an effort to help young Rhode Islanders understand what’s at stake in our elections and include them in discussions of the state’s political issues. The result may be higher voter participation, a more representative government and—for candidates aligned with young voters on the issues—better chances of victory on Election Day.
A recent poll from The Public’s Radio, Providence Journal, ABC6 and the University of New Hampshire gives us a detailed look at young Rhode Islanders’ political views. The poll surveyed 561 Rhode Island registered voters, including 89 registered voters between the ages of 18 and 34. The poll’s results show young Rhode Islanders, in spite of their low voter turnout, are passionate and concerned about issues such as education, the economy, reproductive freedom and gun control. By incorporating these passions and concerns into priorities and messaging, we can inspire more young Rhode Islanders to cast their ballots.
Young voters are the second most likely of any age group to list education as the top issue facing the state. That young people are concerned about education in the state with the fifth-highest student loan debt burden in the country should not be surprising—but it’s not all about higher education: 81 percent of the cohort supports the state’s school improvement bond, too. These results suggest that efforts to bring down the cost of higher education, like tuition-free college or student loan forgiveness, and investments in pre-kindergarten and K-12 are likely political winners among young Rhode Islanders.
On economic issues, the poll results suggest young voters are more concerned about economic security and employment opportunity than with the state’s tax burden. 13 percent of young voters named jobs and the economy as their top concern and another 13 percent named education, while concern about taxes and the state budget barely registered. This suggests young Rhode Islanders aren’t afraid of the state raising revenue, especially to fund investments in education and infrastructure (23 percent of young voters listed infrastructure as their top concern).
Housing affordability is another economic issue relevant to young voters: according to a September poll from WPRI and Roger Williams University, the cost of buying or renting a home is a problem for nearly four in five Rhode Island voters aged 18-39. This suggests a healthy base of support among the demographic for efforts to make the state’s housing market more fair.
Young voters overwhelmingly support state action to protect legalized abortion. In perhaps the most definitive result in the poll, 80 percent of young voters expressed support for the issue. This is the highest rate of support among any age group, which suggests that supporting the Reproductive Health Care Act is a must for any candidate or elected official seeking the support of young voters.
On gun control, the poll finds young voters are less likely than older voters to support a ban on the sale of semi-automatic rifles. This may be a surprising result to see from the cohort that came of age during a period of increasing casualties caused by mass shootings (although school shootings themselves do not appear to be a growing trend). But responses to this question alone do not suggest young voters are opposed to stricter gun regulation—the ban still enjoys plurality support by young Rhode Island voters, 44 percent to 38 percent. Further, in the aftermath of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, youth voter registration in Rhode Island increased at the second-highest rate in the country.
From these poll results, a clearer view of young Rhode Island voters emerges. Young voters are passionate and concerned about many issues in the state: they are worried about education, including the deteriorating condition of many primary and secondary schools. They are nervous about the economy and housing affordability, but do not appear concerned with taxes or the size of the state budget. Reproductive rights find resounding support, while the prospect of banning semi-automatic rifles is met with ambivalence. If we seek to increase young voter turnout, let’s make sure young Rhode Islanders understand how these issues are at stake in our elections and policy deliberations.