Why Young People Don’t Vote, and Why 2020 Might be Different

Scott Warren, visiting fellow at the SNF Agora Institute, discusses why turnout among young voters in the U.S. traditionally lags that of older age groups and the key role civics education can play in creating a more informed, engaged citizenry

As the son of a diplomat who spent his much of his childhood in East Africa and Latin America, Scott Warren saw firsthand the power and promise of democracy. He witnessed a historic democratic election in Kenya in 2002, as well as a coup in Ecuador in 2005, and violent runoff elections in Zimbabwe in 2008.

Those experiences shaped him. They energized him.

Later, as a student at Brown University, Warren was surprised to find that many of his fellow students didn’t share his passion for participating in elections.

“A lot of young people want to make the world a better place,” says Warren, now a visiting fellow at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University. “But they don’t necessarily see politics as the way to do it.”

The rate of participation among young voters in the United States remains among the lowest anywhere in world. Youth turnout in U.S. elections is historically much lower than that of other age groups—about 43% of eligible voters ages 18-29 cast a ballot in 2016, compared to 66% of those ages 45-59 and 71% of those ages 60 or older.

One of the reasons young voters are traditionally disengaged, Warren says, can be traced to a failure of civics education.

“We don’t really teach civics in this country,” he says. “And when we do, it’s not relevant, it’s not exciting, and it’s not accessible.”

Warren co-founded Generation Citizen in 2008 in an effort to change that. Over the past decade-plus, the organization has become a leader in civics education curriculum and advocacy, partnering with middle and high schools across the country to train educators how to teach what it calls “action civics.” The idea is for young people to learn politics by practicing politics, taking direct action on issues they care about—affordable housing, youth homelessness, police brutality.

To date, Generation Citizen has worked with more than 100,000 students across the U.S., preparing them to be active, informed participants in democracy.

Warren will discuss his experiences with Generation Citizen, the attitudes of young people toward democracy, and the role young voters will play in determining the outcomes of the 2020 election as part of a panel discussion on Friday from noon to 12:45 p.m. The conversation, part of the SNF Agora Institute’s Election 2020 series, will also include Brent Cohen, executive director of Generation Progress; Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University; and Quill Robinson, vice president of government affairs at the American Conservation Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to mobilizing young people around environmental action.

The Hub spoke with Warren for his insights on why so many young people don’t take part in elections, why 2020 might be different, and what issues matter most to the newest members of America’s electorate.

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