election 2020

Young People Aren’t Apathetic. They’re Facing Major Voting Obstacles

“It’s hypocritical accusing us of not being engaged politically when there are a lot of barriers to us voting," one college student said.
Collage by Hunter French | Images via Getty

The backlog of would-be voters at the clerk office in East Lansing, Michigan, on Tuesday consisted mostly of college students—some of whom waited more than three hours to vote. “It was a hot mess,” Rachel Winfield, a 19-year-old sophomore at Michigan State University, told VICE. It was the day of Michigan’s closely watched Democratic primary, which the punditry class had come to depict as Bernie Sanders’ youthful army’s last stand. But the long polling lines weighed on the busy students, who were under pressure to get back to their obligations.


Winfield watched as some of them left before they cast their ballot.

“We all have to go to class and a lot of us have jobs,” Winfield said. “Students would be in line and were like, ‘I have to go, I have work.’”

One week before, students at the University of Texas, Austin grappled with similar issues. While the university has over 50,000 students, it only had two polling locations open on Super Tuesday, and that was only because students fought to get a second one in 2018. Marco Guajardo, a 21-year-old senior and Bernie Sanders supporter, told VICE that students waited for hours to vote on the day of the Texas primary.

“We were encouraging people to stay in line after closing time because they still had the legal right to vote as long as they were in line,” Guajardo said.

When Sanders decided to run for president once again last year, he and his supporters premised his electoral strategy on getting energetic young people to show up at the polls. Headlines like “Bernie Sanders Is Building a Youth Firewall” and “The Kids Still Love Bernie” added to a feeling that Sanders’ movement might lead to unprecedented turnout amongst a demographic that historically stays home in large numbers on election day.

Sanders has won over the American youth. Take Michigan’s exit polls as an example, where 83 percent of voters 18-24 said they backed the senator. But thus far, youth turnout overall has disappointed: It’s been older, not younger people who are turning out as a greater share of the electorate. Early analysis of exit polls by the Harvard Institute of Politics showed that compared to 2016, youth turnout has stayed mostly flat or declined, both in terms of share of the total primary vote and in net numbers, while turnout for Gen X, boomers, and seniors has shot up.


While the exact reasons for why Sanders hasn’t been able to get his core supporters to show up are varied and unclear, the response more often than not revolves around the idea that young people are lazy or apathetic. Less talked about are the specific voting barriers that young people might face when trying to cast their votes. These roadblocks are no accident: As The New York Times reported, in response to the surge of young voters in the 2018 midterm elections, Republicans in states around the country have systematically made it harder for young people to cast their ballots, and young people are taking notice.

“I think it’s hypocritical accusing us of not being engaged politically when there are a lot of barriers to us voting,” Winfield said.

Barry Burden, director of the elections research center at University of Wisconsin-Madison, told VICE that “voting rules are definitely a barrier” for young people. “Even a rule that seems neutral because it applies to everyone is often more consequential for a young person whether they’re a student or not.” As John Holbein, professor at University of Virginia and author of a recent book on young voting patterns, pointed out in a recent piece, young people are very much interested in politics, but “are much more likely than people over 30 to be derailed by obstacles.”

Some states have more deliberately made it difficult for young voters to cast their ballots. In Texas, the GOP-led legislature has ramped up voting restrictions, banning mobile polling sites that often make it easier for young people to vote at temporary campus locations. Because of this ban, nine polling sites at Austin Community College campuses closed, as The New York Times reported in the fall. (The Times noted that those sites “logged many of the nearly 14,000 ballots that full-time students cast last year.”) At the polling site in Houston’s Texas Southern University, a historically black college, some people waited nearly seven hours in line.


Other states have simply fumbled attempts to improve the situation. In 2018, Michigan passed a number of laws, including same-day registration, which were supposed to make it easier for people to vote. But the primary earlier this week revealed growing pains for the state’s new laws. At the University of California, Los Angeles, it was the first year where same-day registration and voting were allowed on campus, and some students waited for more than two hours to vote.

Long wait times are not the only barriers that young people face. Younger voters are often first-time voters, meaning that they have greater difficulty navigating the bureaucracy when it comes to registering to vote. States that have residency requirements or restrictive deadlines for voting registration make it harder for young people who might be living away from home. Young people today are also less likely to have drivers licenses than in the past and some states don’t accept student IDs, which makes it difficult to vote in places with strict identification laws.

Jessica Morreale, a 21-year-old junior at Missouri State University said she felt well-informed about her state’s voting laws, from her experience interning for the county clerk and canvassing for local candidates. The experience proved critical when she almost got turned away at the polls for having an out-of-state ID. Although her Illinois drivers license should have been sufficient, Morreale also brought her voter ID card with a Missouri address to show the polling volunteers.


“I just worry about those younger voters who are not sure of themselves and get told misinformation, be it at the polls or just throughout the year, and then do not vote as a result of it,” Morreale said over text.

Young people also often have unconventional, busy schedules that might make it difficult to vote on election day, yet many states still don’t allow for early voting. For students, something as simple as not having access to a car makes it hard to vote if their campus doesn’t have an on-site polling location. In a Census Bureau survey of the 2018 election, 31 percent of people between 18-24 years old said they didn’t vote because they were too busy with conflicting schedules, compared to just 6 percent of those 65 and older. Same-day registration and automatic voter registration would all help in combating the problem and boosting youth turnout, but a majority of states lack those reforms.

The contours of the academic calendar can provide extra barriers. Keely Sage, a 20-year-old junior at University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and president of Tennessee College Democrats, found registering her fellow students in time a challenge, she told VICE. Tennessee, a state that consistently ranks near the bottom for voter turnout, requires voters to register no later than 30 days before the election. Sage pointed out that students get back to school from winter break on January 8 and the deadline to register is February 3 for the March 3 primary. “It doesn’t even give us a month to get people registered,” Sage said.

Winfield, the Michigan State University student, is also the director of her college Democrat group. She said that many students were asking her questions on election day, which concerned her. “It shouldn’t be the role of other student organizations to give out this information. It should be the priority of state governments, especially if you do want to see increased youth voter turnout,” Winfield said. She voted for Sanders and said that many of the young people at the clerk’s office were also voting for him.

Voter suppression is only part of the problem, but low youth turnout overall should be thought of as a crisis of democracy. In the eyes of Guajardo, the University of Texas, Austin student, the people who dismiss his generation for low turnout are missing a key part of the story.

“I wish those same people would see these lines of hundreds of students trying to exercise their right to vote,” he said.

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