By Jennifer LeDuc
While more young people have become eligible to vote since the 2020 election, they don’t appear to be nearly as motivated to do so, and election analysts are unsure how that group will impact the November election.
Amid the uncertainty, voter-education groups are stepping up efforts to get young people engaged.
“One of the framings we use is ‘It’s not about you; it’s about your community. A small number of votes often decide an issue or a candidate. There are consequences when people don’t show up to vote,’” said Elizabeth Parmelee, Ph.D., associate vice president of Undergraduate Studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver. She directs the grant-funded Voter Engagement Project, which aims to help students better understand the voting process and identify with it.
“If you start to identify with the process of voting and using your vote to make a difference not just for you but for your community, you’ll be more likely to continue voting in the next election,” Parmelee said.
Since the state’s passage of the Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act of 2013, many hurdles to voting, such as waiting in long lines or trying to figure out where to vote, have been eliminated, Preuhs said. However, if someone isn’t inclined to think about politics, even receiving a ballot in the mail may not be enough motivate them to vote, especially if they do not feel it will matter. “At some point,” he said, “there’s a good amount of folks for whom the system is distant.”
To help close that distance, MSU Denver’s Voter Engagement Project enlists the help of seven student ambassadors, who work at “creating a buzz” around the identity of being a voter and generating a sense of community.
They provide nonpartisan education on ballot issues and help students navigate the voting process, whether it’s how to turn in their ballots or register to vote.
“From what I’ve observed, younger people aren’t voting because they don’t know or understand what they’re voting on or they don’t know how or where to vote,” said ambassador Shelly Maddox, a third-year MSU Denver student. “MSU Denver’s campus makes it really easy to vote, but not every school is like that.”
MSU Denver students participate in elections at a particularly high rate. In 2016, the University stood out nationally with the highest percentage of student voter participation at 65.9%. It was also recognized this year for having a highly established action plan.
“Our students are engaged,” Preuhs said. “We see that in classes, and we see it in participation in student organizations. Even when there is lower voter participation overall, we see a sustained energy in our students. It’s a hallmark of our University and the students’ expectations for the future.”
Sociologist Christine Sheikh, Ph.D., faculty lead for MSU Denver’s Voter Engagement Project, acknowledged that there’s discouragement among young people. And in many ways, she said, they’re right.
“One of the framings we use is ‘It’s not about you; it’s about your community. A small number of votes often decide an issue or a candidate. There are consequences when people don’t show up to vote.’”
Elizabeth Parmelee, Ph.D., Metropolitan State University of Denver
There is inequality in power, Sheikh said, but not voting only perpetuates that inequality. The Voter Engagement Project doesn’t tell somehow how they should vote or with which party to affiliate, she said. “We just want you to vote,” she said.
Even though voter participation in midterm elections trends lower, Sheikh said the Voter Engagement Project has lasting effects on voting behavior when young people realize their votes can have generational impact, if not an immediate tangible impact.
“When a student says they’re not into politics or voting doesn’t matter, I remind them that politics is one of the main structures to address inequalities in our society,” Sheikh said. “I especially want to see young people step into their power and understand that they have more power than they think they do. If they want to see something happen, they can make that happen. They just have to believe they have the power they really do have.”
Jennifer LeDuc is a contributing writer for MSU RED. This story originally appeared on MSU Denver RED.
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