Knight Foundation

Local Voter Drop-off

Voter turnout in the 2014 midterm elections (36.3 percent) was the lowest it’s been since World War II. Turnout for local elections is even lower, with research showing only 1 in 5 eligible voters show up for mayoral elections.

Young people are moving to cities—and particularly to downtown areas—in greater number than any other age group. They are remaking cities across the country, and have the opportunity to be powerful forces for change. But it’s hard to have influence when you don’t show up to vote, and young people vote at lower rates in local elections than any other age group.

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Voting and elections are a big deal for Knight. It’s a measure of how engaged people are in improving their communities, and of how connected people feel to their cities. It’s a lofty ideal, but democracy is stronger when more people show up to help make decisions. Higher turnout helps governments and residents better communicate with each other, and builds stronger connections between the work of local governments and the things we care about. They can be frustrating and opaque and complex, but voting and government are essential to the future of the places we call home.

This led us to ask: Why don’t more millennials vote in local elections? We worked with Lake Research Partners to look at the existing research, and then conducted focus groups in Akron, Ohio, Miami and Philadelphia with 60 millennials (ages 20 to 34) who voted in the 2012 presidential election but haven’t voted in recent local elections. These conversations helped us understand what motivates and obstructs millennials in local voting.

Why local elections matter

We have a lot of layers of government in this country. From cities and counties, to states and regions and the federal government, and dozens or even hundreds of positions at every level. We’re asked to vote for a long, occasionally absurd list of people, issues and jobs. This leaves a lot of people asking: How do these positions affect me, and will my vote make a difference?

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Local elections have immediate impact on our lives

While every election is important in its own way, it’s the local ones that have the most immediate impact on our lives. Local elections determine how our neighborhoods look and feel, whether and how our streets are kept clean and safe, how our roads and transit work, what it’s like to have a job, start a business and have kids in the places we live. Local elections are also at the heart of how money is allocated and spent: Should we build a new stadium, continue funding a public library, support small businesses? If we care about our cities, we have to care about who gets elected and the issues on the ballot.

Voter turnout for local elections is low

Despite this, turnout for local elections is low overall—and even lower among millennials.

Why don't more young people vote in local elections?

Five key barriers that prevent us from making progress.

Why don't more young people vote in local elections?

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  1. 1 Is it the media coverage?

    Our focus groups found that lack of information about the candidates and issues was the biggest barrier millennials experience to local voting. This contrasts with national elections where they are bombarded with information. Other studies suggest cutbacks to local media may lead to less civic engagement; voters have less information in local elections than in national ones, so they’re less likely to vote.

  2. 2 Could people have a poor understanding of local government?

    Millennials don’t see how local government affects their lives. Millennials in the focus groups asked whether things like schools and public transit “count” as local government. They have a genuine passion for local issues, but many don’t make the connection between these things and local government, so don’t see why voting for local government matters.

  3. 3 Are people skeptical of the government?

    Many participants viewed local government as an afterthought at best but corrupt at worst. The conversations echoed recent studies showing low levels of trust in government. These millennials engage in their community in many ways, like volunteering and supporting local charities, but are skeptical of government as a lever for change.

  4. 4 Are young people not committed to their city?

    Millennials born and raised in the community were more eager to vote in future local elections. As we know, millennials move a lot more than older adults. Those who had recently moved to the city often said it was hard to get to know local civic life and feel connected to what’s going on around them. Those planning to remain in the community for years to come were more likely to believe in the importance of civic engagement.

  5. 5 Could it be the voting process?

    Much attention is given to making it easier to vote—and that’s awesome. But millennials said they were pretty clear when it comes to knowing how to register and identify their voting location. This could be because we spoke to millennials who voted in the last national election, but for them it’s not the process of voting keeping them away from the polls.

What could help?

Five suggestions to take us to the next level of participation.

What could help?

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  1. 1 Providing more trustworthy information about local elections

    Millennials don’t feel informed enough to vote in local elections and often don’t trust the coverage or sources they encounter. Delivering better information and channeling it based on how they consume news—mainly on mobile devices—will be important since they’re unlikely to seek out coverage of local elections.

  2. 2Building community attachment among new residents

    People who have lived in their cities for longer felt more engaged and more likely to vote in the future. But recent transplants felt less plugged into local affairs. Focus group participants liked the idea of a welcome packet for new residents that gives essential information about local elections and how local government is structured to affect important topics.

  3. 3Creating social norms for voting

    Voting is a social activity, and we’re more likely to do it when the people around us are doing it too. The problem is that millennials are surrounded by other millennials who are not very likely to vote. Social campaigns with role models, celebrities and other influencers could be influential.

  4. 4 Turning cultural participation into civic participation

    Millennials often choose where they live because they like what there is to do there: The recreation, the culture, the exploration. Connecting with millennials in these cultural settings may be an effective tactic for linking elections to local life.

  5. 5 Reframing the value of voting

    Millennials are less attracted to messages that frame voting as a responsibility or “civic duty”—and that makes sense, because it makes it seem like homework. No one likes homework. Our focus groups found that young people responded most favorably to positive messages that emphasize channeled local pride and outlined how voting could produce clear, tangible outcomes for issues important to them.