Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Why College Students Don't Vote – Some Anecdotes

By: Inoljt,

College students, and young people in general, are famous for their low voting turn-out. In the 2010 midterms, an estimated 20.9% of 18 to 19-year-olds voted – far below the estimated 51% who voted in the 2008 presidential election. 18-to-29-year-olds composed 18% of the electorate in the 2008 presidential election; in the 2010 mid-term elections, they composed a mere 11% of the electorate.

As a college student myself, I’ve had a number of conversations with individuals who did not vote that November.

More below.

One person had a mid-term on election day. This individual wasn’t very interested in politics, and so he put his mid-term as more important than his vote. Save for Proposition 19, he did not care very much about anything that was up on the ballot.

Another person forgot to register in time. This individual was also far more interested in baseball than politics, which he knew very little about.

Forgetting to register in time was the reason why another college student didn’t vote. This person was quite politically interested – he believes in the philosophy of communism – and liked to talk about international events. But he didn’t know about the actual routine of registering and applying for an absentee ballot.

This was the same with another college student that I talked with during the summer. I asked him who he was going to vote for, and he responded by saying, “Oh yeah, I forgot that we can actually vote now. How can I vote outside the state?” I then told him how to apply for an absentee ballot.

Finally, there was a college student who didn’t vote due to a mistake in his voter registration form. This mistake apparently caused the state to think he was 10-years-old.  The student attempted to correct the error, but wasn’t able to do so. In talking about this, he called himself “disenfranchised.”

Now, none of these individuals can be accused of being stupid or lazy. They are in fact the opposite – extremely bright, extremely ambitious, and extremely motivated. They constitute the future leaders of the United States.

And they all forgot to vote.

In general, it seems that lack of interest and lack of knowledge were responsible for this. Many young people have never voted before in their lives, and they are unfamiliar with what you actually need to do to vote. Unlike adults, they haven’t been doing the procedure for years. The media always urges people to vote, but it never tells you how to vote: you have to register in your state (here is the form for California), and if you go to college in a different state you need to apply for an absentee ballot for your state (here is the form for California). This is not hard to do; it is just that most young people don’t know that they have to do it or forget to do so in time.

Lack of interest also plays a role. A college student uninterested in politics, who doesn’t know how register to vote or who forgets to register, isn’t going to vote. This is probably quite common.

There are policy changes that can increase turn-out. Election-day voter registration can help young voters who forgot to register in time. Voter turn-out is much higher in states with this. Perhaps states can add a requirement to high school government classes guiding students through the registration and absentee ballot process.

But youth turn-out will probably always lag overall turn-out, as long as young people are more busy than old people.


  1. trs

    in Illinois, we had a table in the front lobby of the school. Almost all students passed this table at one time or another during the day. We made sure the table was constantly staffed. We had a couple dozen voter registrars: some, like me, were staff, and others were faculty members. We set up a table at all college events during the period up to the election (in Illinois, you have to be registered 30 days before the election). We registered a lot of people, and also heard a lot of excuses. All the registrars I knew (including me) said the same thing, “if you don’t register and then vote, you have no right to complain.” We also ran a campaign up to and on election day to make sure everybody knew when the election was. A lot of faculty gave extra credit for showing up with either a voting stub from your precinct polling place or one of those “I Voted” stickers they give out.

  2. alyssa chaos

    between ignorance and lack of access.

    I mean I just recently moved to a new state and I can say that Im ignorant in the sense that I have no idea where the local DMV is (I assume that I can register to vote there). I get lost constantly and have no car. If the deadline to register to vote were tomorrow I’d be screwed.

    Its extremely hard to figure these things out for yourself if no one is pointing out where/how to do these things. So I definitely sympathize with my fellow students out there. That being said I have never missed any election in my home state.

    Get out the vote efforts and education are key to getting young people to vote.

  3. mahakali overdrive

    since I work at a University, where I do try to do GOTV reminders on campus. The students very, very often forget to re-register to vote after moving. The other things that I’ve heard are that:

    – they are on absentee ballot which was sent to their old residence, but by the time Aunt Frankie sent it to them, it had expired.

    – they are less inclined to vote in a new district since they have little familiarity with the issues in that district. Many have never voted before, so they don’t always realize that they don’t HAVE to vote for everything on the ballot (I’m in California; our ballots are long and our measures are virtually impenetrable to fathom).

    – they are not aware that they can legally miss a class if needed to vote.

    – they don’t know where the voting place is if they HAVE re-registered.

    – they forgot. This one is really frustrating to them. It’s good for Professors to simply remind them that voting day is coming up. BEFORE voting day.

    – they don’t know who to vote for. Many don’t have a strong sense of what they value yet. California does NOT require a High School course in Civics. Period. And many have simply never thought about politics. Or they may have a very piecemeal sense of political ideology that isn’t fully articulate yet, and they don’t know which candidates or issues represent it. So they might not catch the exigence of voting. Or they might not feel the issues, or know how to synthesize these issues into points of personal concern for themselves. Many are afraid of “voting wrong.”

    These are the main things that I have heard when I ask people why they did or didn’t register and/or vote.  

  4. Rashaverak

    do their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles vote?  It seems to me that if there is a strong family tradition of voting, if the importance of voting is drummed into kids from an early age, if they are taken to the polls and into the booth on Election Day to see how the process unfolds, there is a much greater likelihood that they will make the effort to register and to vote.

    The percentage of adults who vote is disappointingly low.  If parents don’t vote, where are their kids going to get the desire and the inclination to vote?

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