Fresno voters
Voters fill out their ballots at a voting site at the Hamilton School gymnasium in central Fresno on June 7. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

Election Day will undoubtedly reintroduce a familiar tale: Young people ages 18-24 don’t vote, or not enough of them do. 

Traditionally, young voters have the lowest turnout rates nationwide and in California. About 51% of voters ages 18-24 cast a ballot in the 2020 presidential election, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and more than 47% in California. These numbers typically plunge during midterms and more local elections.

Opinion logo

Why don’t young people vote? Many people surmise it is due to apathy about elections or our self-absorbed nature, claiming that Generation Z and millennials prefer vanity to voting.

That is far from true. If anything, it’s the antipode. 

The issue is not that young people are ignorant to the political process — the intention to engage has always been there. The issue is that our civics education, which most young people are relying on, isn’t conducive to actual civic engagement.

It should be, considering that the two youngest generations eligible to vote will soon make up the largest share of the electorate. In the last 10 years, the greatest youth share of the 18-24 vote in California was 10%, according to USC’s Price School of Public Policy.

California’s youths are underrepresented. That reality is a detriment to our democracy. 

The genuine desire for civic engagement is out there. Over the past five presidential elections, an average of 85% of people ages 18-29 said they are interested in politics, and 81% said they intend to vote, according to the American National Election Study. However, most of them don’t seem to follow through, largely due to significant voting barriers that disproportionately affect younger voters. 

Younger voters, with their first foray into the world of booths and ballots, have little to no experience. Unlike older voters, the closest precinct location is likely a place they’ve never visited. The history shaping the top issues of the election are not necessarily stored in their recent memory. 

The former is a technical barrier to voting that usually occurs on Election Day, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. Trouble locating a polling place, transportation and long lines are also barriers, the Tufts University study found. 

The latter are institutional barriers, or at best are caused by an unhelpful civics curriculum. Young people often don’t know how to research their candidates or where to even begin. Their knowledge of current issues is “modest, at best” according to The California Survey of Civic Education. Most are clueless about key voting dates, such as the deadline to register. 

In California, a semester-long course in American government and civics is a minimum requirement for high school graduation. It’s well-intentioned in wanting to make sure high schoolers, who are usually of or close to voting age, understand their government and engage with it. But as Duke University political science professor Sunshine Hillygus describes it in her book “Making Young Voters,” civics lessons are taught using “bubble sheet civics.”

“We’re teaching facts and figures about politics and government and history, which are not necessarily connected to the issues of the day, or even the very kind of fundamental and basic practical facts that people might need to know about like when and how they need to register and vote,” Hillygus wrote.

She’s right. This is not to say that the curriculum provides no benefit. Understanding the foundations of government is essential to the political process. But if we want young people to leave their civics class ready to vote, our civics curriculum needs to fill that experience gap. 

When the next election arrives, if we want young Californians to turn out at higher rates, rethinking how we teach civics is the most effective way to get there.

Sumayyah Rose Abuelmaatti is a political science and philosophy student at Palomar College. She is working on Joseph Rocha’s campaign for the 40th District in the state Senate serving San Diego County. She wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.