Youth and US Elections: About Way More than Just the Horserace

By Peter Levine and Abby Kiesa

A lasting impact of electoral engagement can deepen the civic life of communities. New research suggests that being involved with others on solutions to social problems contributes to young people to flourishing and achieving their potential.

As Election Day 2016 drew closer, news and conversations about the election focused even more narrowly than usual on the horserace and party politics, rather than, for instance, effective solutions to public problems and public deliberation about issues. Listening to the news, you may have thought that the only reason to care about youth electoral participation was to know what candidates they would support. But don’t let that fool or distract you − youth civic participation is about more than just who wins elections.

An election is a good opportunity to think about how young people are engaged in our public life generally. Participation in elections is one example of a civic engagement activity which includes actions that people take to address public problems. Other activities include news engagement, discussion of public issues and policy advocacy. Decades of research has shown that people who engage have built long-term habits and skills.¹ Engagement early in life fuels later engagement, thus creating the foundation for strong democratic participation. Additionally, emerging research shows that civic engagement isn’t only a civic good but also brings other individual and community-level benefits such as skill development, wellbeing and community and economic resilience.

Youth Electoral Engagement

 Elections are one way that communities address public problems. Elections create opportunities for community forums and town hall events with candidates, information about referenda and ballot initiatives, canvassing in communities, and of course, ultimately voting.

There are an enormous number of ways that young people can engage in activities related to an election. These activities provide the above development opportunities, as well as a potential gateway to new ways of engaging:

Discussion about referenda/initiatives/candidates
• Sharing information/curation
• Media creation related to election issues/topics
• Watching news/media about referenda/initiatives/candidates
• Encouraging others to register and/or vote
• Volunteering on a campaign
• Election judge/poll worker
• Voter registration
• Voting

Through electoral participation, young people can learn important lessons and skills to carry into other areas of engagement.

 Through a range of different programs and activities, organisations engage or support the civic development and leadership of young people. Through electoral participation, young people can learn important lessons and skills to carry into other areas of engagement. Here are a couple of highlights from 2016:


 Our home, the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life hosted a satellite event that is part of a larger initiative called the “Unconvention”. An initiative of several major broadcast outlets, including Public Radio International, this is a series of events and conversations for millennials around the globe to discuss the issues and results of the US election. Research regularly finds that discussion among youth about elections increases the likelihood that youth will participate in other ways.

 •Mikva Challenge Primary trips & Great Electoral Race

 During the 2016 primaries, Mikva Challenge, an organisation that teaches civic skills and knowledge through action-based pedagogies, combined teaching about US elections with trips to states with primaries and caucuses going on. Youth involved in Mikva from around the country (and chaperones) worked on campaigns for a candidate of their choice. As Mikva Challenge staff shared, “The students discovered that actually knocking doors and making calls is entirely different than just talking about it. Engaging voters reveals young people’s persuasive skills, gives them confidence in their own voices, and allows them to see the impact of their work first-hand.”³ Additionally, Mikva has created the Great Electoral Race,4 a team-based competition curriculum based on learning about elections, candidates and displaying civic skills.

Over a decade’s worth of research has helped to illuminate what facilitates youth voting and electoral engagement and what can act as a barrier. We know that youth are more likely to vote when their household growing up was engaged,5 when people reach out to them to discuss the election or give them concrete information about when where and how to vote, and when they experience high quality civic education in the high school classroom.6 In fact, data indicates that when more youth are contacted by major political parties, youth turnout goes up (see graph below).



During the 2012 election cycle, our work for the Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge7 found that no one intervention we researched outperformed the influence of the household and community a young person grew up in. As a result, to change the culture of communities to encourage youth participation, many community stakeholders need to be involved, including civic organisations, unions, schools, local businesses and local government.

Emerging Research on Benefits to Engagement

A lasting impact of electoral engagement can deepen the civic life of communities. However, the civic activities of a community, such as youth electoral participation, are more tied into social and economic systems than is often portrayed and can lead to increased social and economic benefits for individuals and communities. Young people develop important skills, attitudes, agency and networks of contacts to name a few, which can be taken into other venues and settings.

Skill Development

Working on community issues requires more than doing; civic engagement requires skills to be effective. Depending on the project or issue, a range of skills may be needed for effectiveness: communication, analysis or other critical thinking skills, or the ability to organise and manage a group.8 These “21st century skills” are more likely to be developed through high-quality, interactive civic education.9 There’s a great deal of overlap between these skill areas and skills that employers indicate they are looking for.10 For example, iCivics’ Drafting Board uses civic content to teach persuasive writing skills. Our experimental evaluation of the tool found that youth who engaged with the civic content through the tool were more likely to score higher on persuasive writing.11 As a result, both youth civic education and engagement contribute not only to youth civic development, but also to young people’s development for other areas of their life as well.

New research suggests that being involved with others on solutions to social problems contributes to young people to flourishing and achieving their potential.

 For many years, advocates have been encouraging schools to move from a knowledge-driven civics curriculum to one based on skill development. Developing effective skills for dialogue may be particularly important in today’s political culture. The American Psychological Association (APA) reported that in their 2016 poll about politics at the workplace, those workers between 18 and 34 were more likely to say that political discussions created stress and that it influenced their “work performance.”12


Skills are not the only area of individual development. Research has begun to investigate whether young people’s sense of contentment, meaning and motivation are increased through participation in civic life. New research suggests that being involved with others on solutions to social problems contributes to young people to flourishing and achieving their potential.13 Our colleagues at the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University investigated whether consistent or increased civic engagement was more likely to be related to flourishing than disengagement or decreased engagement. Whether or not it’s a voter registration drive, a discussion group or an advocacy campaign, civic engagement activities, young people can find something deeper as well.

Community and Economic Resilience

The Rockefeller Foundation explains the purpose of their initiative on resilience as “helping cities, organisations, and communities better prepare for, respond to, and transform from disruption.”14 Youth engagement brings more time and energy to public problem solving. Elements of the City Resilience Framework,15 include attention to inclusivity and building connections between people, which civic engagement does. Young people also bring new perspectives to issues that would not be included otherwise. Early youth engagement also increases the likelihood of adult participation in community problem-solving.

Emerging research also suggests that there is a direct connection between a community’s civic engagement and economic resilience. Research done by one of us and a colleague found that during the US economic downturn during 2006-2010, a state’s unemployment was strongly correlated with the level of civic engagement in the state.16 Specifically, we found that the number of nonprofits and the level of social cohesion were the most significant indicators affecting economic resilience. The specific potential impact of youth engagement is something that we are investigating through a grant from the W.T. Grant Foundation.

 This emerging data, as a result, suggests that institutions such as governments, schools, news outlets, and parties ought to encourage practices like deliberation and activism during elections. Similar investments have been made for community service. By creating a federal agency for national and community service, instituting service requirements in some schools, school districts, and colleges, and building up a whole network of service programs and centers, we have been able to raise the youth volunteerism rate since the 1980s. Similar investments in youth electoral engagement are steps towards sustaining democratic participation and, as we’ve explained here, other individual and community benefits.

Featured image: On Tuesday, September 27th, 2016, organisations and volunteers from all over the country will celebrate National Voter Registration Day. Photo courtesy: nonprofitvote

About the Authors

peter-webPeter Levine, PhD is the Associate Dean for Research and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. He is the author of We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America (Oxford University Press, 2013) and six previous books. 

abby-webAbby Kiesa, MA is Director of Impact at CIRCLE (Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement), based at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. In addition to conducting research, such as providing leadership for CIRCLE’s election efforts, Abby also serves as liaison to practitioner organisations across the country to maintain a conversation between research and practice.

1. For examples of this work see Plutzer (2002), Kirlin (2003) and Thomas & McFarland (2010).
5. Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge (2013) “All Together Now: Innovation and Collaboration for Youth Engagement”.
6. ibid
8. For a sample list of skills used in civic life see Kirlin (2003) and CIRCLE Special Report on Civic Skills and Federal Policy (2010).
9. Torney Purta, Judith and Wilkenfeld, Britt S. (2009). “Paths to 21st Century Competencies Through Civic Education Classrooms: An Analysis of Survey Results from Ninth Graders.”
10. soft skills employers are looking for/

11. drafting board module boosts students writing skills/
12. politics workplace survey results.pdf
13. events/assessment spotlight tufts university tisch college citizenship and public service
14. work/topics/resilience

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.