We’re on the brink of losing our next generation of voters in the Commonwealth. According to the Department of State, more than 1.7 million Pennsylvanians, of all ages, who are eligible to vote aren’t registered to vote at this very moment. Far too many are disengaged from the political process, which puts our democracy in peril.
Our youth find access to the ballot even more challenging. The 26th Amendment granted 18-year-olds the right to vote, but far too many are disillusioned about politics, skeptical of elected officials, and navigating turbulent times. It is an institutional failure on the part of so many.
According to a January 2022 research report from The Civics Center, less than one-in-four 18-year-olds who are eligible to vote are actually registered to vote in time for the 2022 midterm elections. The registration rate goes down from there when considering school districts with the largest student bodies, such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but the suburban collar counties aren’t performing all that well with registering their students either.
For instance, the report estimates that the Bucks County school districts hover around an 18 percent registration rate, and Montgomery County is just one percentage point higher. And, when school districts in less affluent areas that are not as well-funded are considered, registration rates are as low as 11.4 percent in Bristol, Bucks County, and 12.9 percent in Norristown, Montgomery County. Conversely, the more affluent the school district, the higher the voter registration numbers are among the youth. Tredeffryn-Easttown in Chester County has a 39.1 percent registration rate, Haverford in Delaware County is at 36 percent, and New Hope-Solebury and Central Bucks, almost 23 percent.
As the executive director of voting rights organization The New Pennsylvania Project, whose mission is to expand the electorate by registering voters in young and other underserved communities, especially communities of color, my staff and I spend a lot of time talking about the importance of voting with youth. Ten of us spent a recent morning at Chester High School, in the Chester-Upland school district, where the registration rate is just 6.9 percent, registering the youth to vote. Our interaction with the students wasn’t a simple transaction. We weren’t asking them to choose a specific political party or asking them to vote for any particular candidate. We had meaningful conversations, discussed the current climate and the challenges they face as young adults. Then, we asked them to join the electorate, register to vote, and show up to the polls.
Far too often, well-meaning older adults are not having real conversations with the newest generation, and that can, in turn, functionally disenfranchise them from the political process. This is an easy mistake to rectify.
The findings from The Civic Center’s report asserts younger voters are inadequately prepared to participate in the pivotal upcoming elections. This may only be true because older folks have apparently deemed civic education a lower priority than banning books or pushing a CRT boogeyman narrative on the misinformed. When we provide voting-age students with the information they need and desire to advocate for themselves and to help make their lives and the lives of their family members better, we see an energized young electorate.
When students learn how their schools are funded (or underfunded), how access to clean air and water is written into the Pennsylvania Constitution, and when they learn the minimum wage hasn’t increased in the Commonwealth for more than a decade, making their first “real job” a challenge to paying off mounting student loan debt, they become more inspired to join the electorate and make democracy realized for themselves and others.
And we must not forget that the majority of high school students don’t go to college, so we must ensure their participation in the democratic process before they leave their high school halls. We cannot rely on college campus voter registration efforts if we want all young people to vote.
Lastly, registering younger folks to vote is great. Ensuring that they make it to the polls every election to build power in their communities, and join the electorate, is critical. Have a conversation about the importance of voting with the young people in your life, you won’t regret it.