John Holbein

The Youth Vote in 2020

Air Date: June 8, 2020

UVA professor and “Making Young Voters: Converting Civic Attitudes into Civic Action” coauthor John Holbein discusses the civic participation of Gen Y and Z.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind @Home. I’m delighted today to welcome our guest John Holbein, author of this terrific new book “Making Young Voters.” John is a professor at the University of Virginia. Delighted to have you on.


HOLBEIN: Thanks for having me.


HEFFNER: And I hope you’re staying well there in Charlottesville or wherever you are.


HOLBEIN: We’re trying to social distance and stop the spread as much as possible down here.


HEFFNER: This is one of my favorite subjects of all because before hosting The Open Mind, I covered the youth vote for several election cycles. Your central thesis about young voters is…


HOLBEIN: Yeah, it’s that we’ve misunderstood why young people don’t turn out to vote for a long time. So there’s been a narrative in the public discourse about youth voting for a long time that sort of said that young people are disinterested in politics. They just don’t want to participate, that they’re apathetic and disengaged. And those young people, if maybe we could only get them interested in politics, things would change. That’s not true, right? No matter how you measure it, be it in surveys, be it in online behavior, be it in interviews with young people, they’re very interested in politics. They just really struggle to go through the process of moving and following through on their interest in politics that they have and their good intention is to be engaged.


HEFFNER: But the images coming out of recent primaries and caucuses and even in the midst of the pandemic when we were still voting was a lot of young faces online to vote, to either vote by machine or hand in their ballot. So some of the imagery we have is young people really desperate to vote. And following through, but there’s a cohort that would not follow through. But the amazing thing is the chart in your book about the upsurge and uptick in youth participation in 2018, which was remarkable relative to youth participation in midterm cycles to date, because you pointed out that that’s really dead on arrival. Young people are missing an action every midterm cycle to the extent, to the extent that there’s a downturn in overall voter turnout, there’s really just a complete layering of young people. So they never show out for midterms. And they did show up for midterms in 2018.


HOLBEING Yeah, that’s right. I mean, so at least a 31 percent of young people did in 2018. So, you know, there was a lot of discussion about you know, the March for Our Lives movement and all the great efforts that they did to try and get out the youth vote and the many other organizations that pushed for young people to turn out in 2018 the re the harsh reality is that even in that election, sort of the high watermark from midterm election and youth voting seven in 10 young people didn’t turn out to vote. And the types of people who were staying home were young minorities, young, just socially, socioeconomically disadvantaged young people, the types of people whose voices we really want to hear in our democracy just weren’t showing up still. So it was an exciting change for sure, but still a lot of area, room for growth.


HEFFNER: But John, that mirrors the proclivities of the electorate at large, right, in terms of depression, of turnout in, you know, less affluent and literate communities. So it was much more of a maybe a progressive step in the direction of greater voter participation. What are the dynamics at play this cycle of 2020 that might really create a tsunami of interest. And do you think that even amid the pandemic, there’s more of a motivation to follow through?


HOLBEIN: Yeah, what we’re seeing is that young people are interested and desire to participate in the process. The early data that we have from some of the primaries and caucuses that happened before the pandemic outbreak occurred was not great for young people still you know, despite high levels of interest in survey data we’re still seeing big gaps by age and in places like New Hampshire, Iowa, and the other primaries and caucuses that have occurred. So I think there’s a lot of interest out there among young people to be engaged in 2020 and beyond potentially. But it’s just not bearing fruit, right, it’s, it’s there, there’s some gap. And that’s what our book explores is how to get young people from a state of being sort of interested talking about things online, mobilizing in the streets to actually getting to the ballot box where their voice can make a big difference.


HEFFNER: So what do you find to be the most effective vehicle for that material action? So media campaigns, conventional grassroots organizing, something else?


HOLBEIN: Yeah. So it’s, it’s two prong, a two pronged approach. So it’s, it’s changing fundamentally how we talk about voting and being an active citizen in schools, right, and so it starts with the public school system and the school system as whole. The public schools for a long time have had this obligation and responsibility to train up the next generation of active citizens. And they’ve been doing their best, but we’ve shown in the book that there’s, there’s some evidence that suggests that they could do more. So it’s rethinking civics education such that young people are taught the skills, and knowledge and experience they need to engage in politics now rather than just focusing on sort of politics 200 years ago. You know, the Founding Fathers history. Those things are important, but so is talking about contemporary political issues and gaining the skills and knowledge that young people need to participate. So it’s a fundamental rethinking of the civic education structure training young people in schools to be active voters. The second piece of it is rethinking the process of voting. So it has to do a lot, a lot of the reason why young people don’t turn out and vote is because they see voting and registration as overly complex and difficult and foreign to them. So we show in the book that reforms that make registration easier, such as same day registration that allows young people to register when they show up at the ballot box, say if they missed a voter registration deadline and other reforms that make registration more transparent and easy, increase youth voter participation in quite a bit. So it’s, number one is teaching young people the skills and knowledge they need to participate. Number two is making the voting process more streamlined, more transparent and easier. Given that young people really want to engage, these types of things will actually help them follow through on that.


HEFFNER: In that second category, you allude subtly to the idea of innovative, new innovative methods to the vote. Of course there is the effort underway to expand and protect the franchise through universal mail balloting, in every state so that young people, students, but any population can mail their ballot or bring it to their local electoral, you know, elections office, do that a week in advance or if there’s a window of a month in advance, those are some technical changes to the voting system. But what about a more ambitious project like the expansion of balloting to be online one day? That’s something we did a long podcast with Paul de Gregorio on. You know, he is an institutional person and has worked with a lot of election commissions and administration, but he genuinely believes both because of the need to protect public health and the ability of secure technology, he believes that there should be in the next decade piloting of online balloting, online voting, and that it’s been my contention covering the youth vote for many years, that that’s something that would more fully engaged young voters.


HOLBEIN: Yeah, I think that’s right. The evidence that we have on Vote by Mail suggests that young people really latch onto this reform. So there there’s great evidence out of the state of Washington, which implemented its universal vote by mail system a couple of years ago that suggests that young people when given the opportunity to vote by mail, they, it increases the chances that they’ll go vote. They spring into action. We don’t have a lot of great evidence on electronic voting yet just because it’s kind of a, not a new idea, but it’s just hasn’t been implemented in as many locations to test it for its effects.


We do see it in places like Estonia and other places in Europe where some of the concerns that people voice about voting by voting online rather, excuse me aren’t, don’t come to fruition.


Right. So the, the big concern here is about electoral security protecting the, the, the process itself as we’ve seen in previous elections though, just because we have ballot boxes at polling locations, it doesn’t mean that we are immune from electoral security issues. So I think if, I think it’s an area that has a lot of promise. In general young people when given the opportunity to you know when voting in registration has made easier, they spring into action. So I think it would be consistent with the research that we’ve done to say that something like online voting would really help.


HEFFNER: If you’re talking about mitigating the health crisis to voting by mail still requires people to, you know, handle a great amount of incoming traffic. So from that perspective too it really is a more bulletproof solution to the health crisis, and not so many transfers of hands and germs, and as long as the virus is paralyzing communities and buckling hospital systems so much that cities, large cities and rural communities can’t operate, you know, it’s something that ought to be looked at seriously. And, you know, it would be young people, whether it’s the older than now, older Millennial cohort of tech leaders or the next generation, Gen Z sort of the newest class of professionals, it would be they, I think, who would have to push and advocate for this. So, you know, your book touches on young people’s redefinition of civic action as volunteerism. But unfortunately I think that those civic attitudes have not been converted into civic action in most of the institutions outside of the electoral process. So on Facebook or Twitter and social media, of course, in the government as well. So all of those, those civic attitudes are largely missing.


HOLBEIN: Yeah, that’s right. It’s, it’s a fundamental disconnect where we’re seeing young people mobilize in the streets and online and a fairly active presence in both of those domains. But it’s not translating into voting. Right? There’s some, there’s a gap between these two. Right? And there’s a little bit of a tension, right? Like these things, if you look in survey data, the types of people who are more likely to protest are more likely to discuss politics with people online are more likely to, to vote. But there is a sizeable majority, a sizable chunk of young people who are actively involved in discussing politics, you know, on online with their friends and maybe showing up to a protest, a climate change or gun violence in schools or whatever, whatever topic may be, but then not showing up at the ballot box. I think a lot of organizations in this space realize this, right? So you see lots of voter registration forms being passed around a March for Our Lives rally or a protest for climate change. So these efforts are being made. And I think there’s some ways to sort of build off of one another, right, at protests, getting people enrolled in messaging programs to text them reminders about registration deadlines about the excitement and energy that they had when they were protesting, tapping into the, those types of things. So there’s a way to sort of build off of this and we’re seeing this already from some of these grassroots organizations. We’re really tapping into technology to try and remind young people to make sure that they continue to be actively engaged after the protest or whatever it meant


HEFFNER: In these companies that are represented by what we used to call young voters, people like Zuckerberg who are now, you know, sort of on the tail end of Millennials. So they’re kind of, they re retired from their young status as young entrepreneurs. There’s not a lot of contribution to this civic innovation space. In other words, there’s nothing incentivizing critical figures in the largely monopolistic tech sector to further amplify young people’s representation. And as long as, you know, lobbyists for those tech companies in the same way in lobbyists for the oil companies are not really concerned about climate change, right, those tech companies aren’t really concerned about increasing that 30 percent from this past midterm cycle to over 50 percent voter participation. I mean that leaves these enormously powerful institutions without any incentive to press forward. Now, I’m not suggesting that young people are, again, and I want you to distinguish between Millennials and Gen Zs in how you answered this question. But it could be on their own initiative with their own ingenuity. Like you’re saying that they see the in extension of March for our Lives as Constitutional Amendments or institutional reform that’s going to drive greater equity, economic equality, voter participation. But in an environment in which those enormously powerful institutions are not incentivizing that, is there really a path forward for these Millennials, and now post-Millennials?


HOLBEIN: It’s a great question. I mean you know, I like the parallel you drew between, you know, oil companies and climate change. They’re sort of like this, you know, tinkering around the edges to sort of try and convey a certain concern about this. So like, you know, the analogy here is to the Facebook I voted stickers, right? You know, the things you see on Election Day that are, are meant to, you know I think have a good intent behind them. But really what we argue in the book, that it’s not just about sort of willy-nilly one-time mobilization messages that’s going to fix our problem of low youth voter turnout. And in the United States that is a uniquely acute problem. United States has one of the lowest rates of youth voter turnout in the world.


HEFFNER: And to make that differentiation between a lot of those March protestors and organizers, they are Gen Z, they are post-Millennial. Can you delineate between their civic attitudes and what I would say is the more apathetic, if you want to say baby boomer attitude-esque attitude of their predecessors.


HOLBEIN: Yeah, that’s right. Right. So we’re, I mean we obviously have a little more data on Millennials. We’ve been, you know, they’re in their mid thirties and now, right, that’s not the image of a Millennial that many people have when they talk about this group of young people. So we’re still learning about the next generation of young voters. What we know thus far is actually the pattern is kind of continuing, right? Like one of the things we discovered in our book was that this is a nagging problem that has not been addressed at the level it should be. And it’s been a problem for decades. I mean, literally going back to 1972 when 18 year olds were given the right to vote, you know, they were voting at like 30 percentage points lower than their elder counterparts. So this is a problem that’s continuing to go on and we really need to think about like structural changes that will address this. It’s definitely not about like a single, “I voted” sticker on Facebook or one phone call, that one postcard that we might mail to young people. We need to fundamentally rethink the structure that young people are facing.


HEFFNER: But of the limited evidence that we have, the trillion-dollar question is, will 2018 be replicated in 2020? I mean that, because 2018 is that evidence and it’s a lion share of evidence. It’s not a small portion of evidence. So the question would be, does Gen Z prompt their fellow travelers to engage with that level again or at a greater level, and then to what extent can they influence the older, young or not so young cohort. And so the verdict is out on that, but do you have any estimation as to how much more potent it can get than 2018 if, if they are able to accomplish that so they’re able to bring out their fellow Gen Z plus Gen Y?


HOLBEIN: There, there’s definitely good evidence to suggest that sort of voting builds on itself throughout the life course. So the fact that 2018 saw, you know, thousands of young people who didn’t, who voted, who might’ve not voted in the more typical midterm elections, that’s going to pay dividends in the future, those people are going to continue to vote and voting is definitely transmitted across friend groups, family. So there is this positive building going on. That being said, I think there are pressures that are pushing in the opposite direction, especially with the COVID19 outbreak. A lot of schools are no longer meeting together as we know. That’s where a lot of voter registration programs are happening. So we have to think about like the fact that schools are going to be letting out. There’s going to be a summer period and then we’re going to, you know, come back to school, sort of trying to catch up in the fall and will voter registration really play?

HEFFNER: If we even return to some

HOLBEING: If we return at all, that’s right.

HEFFNER: …normalcy. And if it’s remote education. That’s why those two words are initiative and ingenuity and the only vehicle other than Vote by Mail to do that is online or electronic. So let me, let me ask you this. Would Hillary Clinton have won in 2016 had John Stewart still been on the air?

HOLBEIN: It’s a good question.

HEFFNER: It’s a question pretty salient in your field. I mean, it’s one of those bodies of media influence that had so much, at least assumed power if not proven power.


HOLBEIN: Yeah, that’s right. I’m not aware of a good study on the, you know, the large-scale effects of the Daily Show. But you know, it’s very clear from political science research the media has a huge affect. You know, sort of on the opposite side of fence, right, like Fox News, it clearly has shaped the political views and political behaviors of, you know, there’s predominantly the older crowd in the United States. These media organizations have a great opportunity to encourage young people to register, to vote, to be a part of this sort of like, multifaceted process of getting people registered and into the ballot box.


HEFFNER: The underlying impetus to ask you the question is really the mainstream media narrative of false equivalency during the ‘16 campaign. And now I’ve traveled on some campuses, I remember being in Pittsburgh and in Tampa and the whole mainstream media narrative of lesser of two evils. And your colleague in academia in Virginia, I think she’s in Virginia. Rachel Bitcofer, you know, talked a lot about the efforts, disinformation and a persuasion campaign to try to drive young people away from the Democratic Party because of an obsession with having to hit every nail and have the pedigree of uniformity with their views, and so I asked you about Stewart because he was someone who called the BS and Trevor Noah does that much more effectively now than when he succeeded Stewart. But that show was very different in 2016 and I think that Stewart along with SNL called the BS on false equivalency and in past elections in past cycles, especially leading to the 2008 campaign. And I don’t know, Stewart alone could have, could have, you know, his absence or presence could have tilted the balance. But I, there is a real question as to how much young people are going to be persuaded again that of the two older white candidates one is not superior than the other. And, I’m wondering what the literature and studies that you’ve done say about how that will out this cycle.

HOLBEIN: Yeah, so I mean it’s, it’s, I mean, it’s pretty clear the voting rates we saw among young people or heavily skewed towards Bernie, right during the primaries and this election cycle. So it’s, it is a totally viable question. And I think at this point, it’s an open question. It’s kind of the million dollar question right, is, will young people turn out for Joe Biden now that Bernie Sanders has dropped out of the race and their preferred candidate is no longer running, has endorsed one of the candidates. But as you know, it kind of depends on what the campaign looks like in the next coming months. If this becomes a, you know, an obsession over controversy like 2016 was, you might see some of the common themes replay themselves again.

HEFFNER: They’ll play themselves in different ways though. And I’m wondering how you think that the mentality of young people will be swayed because what, what you had with Hillary Clinton, would be different in terms of the counter punch, I think in response to the pandemic and response to, you know clearly scientifically illiterate and deficient and negligent response. I think young people get that. I also think, interestingly, I want to, maybe we can close on this idea that young people have been taught in science for a long time, this was, due, you know, the next big one? The next big pandemic, you know, we were overdue for it. And I think that that reality combined with sort of the, the initiative and ingenuity might lead them to not be as vulnerable to the kind of tactics in 2016.


HOLBEING: Yeah. I mean it’s, it’s the big, it’s the elephant in the room that we didn’t have in 2016 was this global pandemic that’s led to, you know, tens of thousands.


HEFFNER: That fact that it’s tied to biology 101, it’s really, it’s tied to something inherently connected to young people because most people, even if they don’t make it beyond you know, grade school or high school, you know, someone who’s educated even just from grade school and then, you know, employment or high school employment, you know, this is basic science and a failure of science seems to be something that would resonate with those educated across a wide spectrum.


HOLBEIN: Yeah. I mean it’s certainly consistent with young peoples’ different attitudes on climate change. Right, for example, you know, I think this is a nice analog to what you’re talking about, right? Young people you know, education of climate change varies across the United States and localities for sure, but young people are much more likely to support action in this area as well. So it might be the case, yes, that they’re, they’re definitely sensitive to, more sensitive to this pandemic for the reasons that you outlined. I mean, we have a long literature in political science that says that when types of things like this happen, disasters on the large scale the incumbent party is punished as a result of it. It’s an open question when I think as to how much, young people specifically are going to be doing that in 2020, we’ll have to see.


HEFFNER: But because Millennials alone are the largest electoral block, they have the power to punish and we know that that disease is devastating older folks. So I mean that combination will be interesting from your scientific study. You know, the politics of it. And just the final seconds we have the high points of youth political voting activity were initially when people first got the vote and then what other cycles were, were there any market increases, in 2008 and in ‘92 and ‘96 just tell us in the next 30 seconds, which cycles proved most youth friendly?


HOLBEIN: Yeah, so 2008 was the big one. That’s sort of the high watermark of a youth voter turnout in the last three decades. We saw it in 2004, a little bit lower, a little bit last and then 1992 as well. You got all three of the elections there. They were sort of the high watermark, but the sort of, I hate to end on a dismal note, but the simple fact there is still only, you know, less than half of young people were turning out in those elections.


HEFFNER: John, I’ll counter that dismal note by revealing that “Making Young Voters matters. And look, if 2020 is any replication of 2018 young people will be engaged in our democracy and that’ll be a constructive thing. Thanks for providing this expert lens on the subject, John.


HOLBEIN: Thank you very much.


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