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Story highlights

Clarissa Unger: Research shows young voters care and turnout has improved

With right planning and civic engagement, even more young people would vote, she says

Editor’s Note: Clarissa Unger is the director of civic engagement for Young Invincibles, a nonpartisan national millennial research and advocacy organization that works to advance economic opportunity for young adults. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) —  

We all root for our local sports teams, attend community events and try to make the most of our local parks. But if you really care about your city or town, voting in local elections – and encouraging others to do the same – is one of the most significant ways you can show you’re proud of where you live and you want to make it better.

Voting is an incredibly important part of being a good neighbor, because our communities and our democracy are only as strong as the engagement of our citizens. And the future of our democracy is only as strong as the future of our nation – embodied in its young people.

Clarissa Unger
Abby Ehling
Clarissa Unger

On Tuesday, according to Democracy Works, more than 40% of the US population has an opportunity to vote in a state or local election. This includes major races for governor in New Jersey and Virginia but also races all across the country for local mayors, county commissions, school boards, judges, sheriffs and more – positions that have major impacts on people’s day-to-day lives. Local governments determine policies around the quality of schools, job training programs, public transit, affordable housing and so much more. These are issues that affect young adults as they work to build independent lives, and research shows they want to have a say in them.

But it’s always around this time of year that the worn-out cliché that young people don’t vote emerges. We’ve all heard it before – millennials are apathetic, young adults aren’t civically engaged, they don’t understand the value of voting – the accusations go on and on. But they simply aren’t true.

New research out of Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy & Higher Education paints a much more encouraging picture. The report, which presents information based on the voting records of nearly 10 million students attending more than 1,000 colleges and universities, shows that student voter participation actually improved last year. In fact, it shows a 7% increase (or an increase of 3 percentage points) in turnout among student voters in the 2016 presidential election compared with the election in 2012. It also found the participation rate of 18- to 21-year-olds, the youngest student voters, increased by 10%, from 40.7% in 2012 to 44.8% in 2016 (or a growth of 4 percentage points).

These significant improvements speak to the important role colleges, universities and on-campus communities play in helping young people overcome barriers to voting, because even with keen interest and good intentions, voting, especially for the first time ever, can be intimidating. Despite progress in our last election, our current system just isn’t set up to support young people to participate. Findings from the behavioral science nonprofit, ideas42, show that a lack of understanding about the process can be one of the greatest deterrents for young voters. Registering to vote can be complex, and requirements vary greatly from one location to another.

New voters can also often feel insecure about their level of political knowledge and don’t always know the best place to start learning about the candidates and issues on their ballot. This scenario is even more pronounced in local elections when resources are more finite and campaigns tend to target outreach only to voters they know have participated in previous elections.

Addressing these challenges and spreading the word about Election Day couldn’t be more important, because even though this year isn’t a presidential election, there are truly no “off years” when it comes to democracy.

Bringing in more young voters starts by meeting them where they are. Campuses have long served as incubators for young adult civic engagement, and through even more deliberate effort, we can ensure that translates into voting. The coalition I help lead, called Students Learn Students Vote, created a set of guidelines to help schools. Through our checklist, we focus specifically on helping colleges and universities feel more confident promoting voter registration, voter education and voter mobilization among their students through deliberate planning.

While we’re seeing success for students, these work off-campus, too; they can help any community-based group or institution promote youth voting. Spurring the youth vote in this way simply entails thinking critically about who among your community still struggles in gaining access to the ballot box, thinking of strategies to break down those barriers and writing a plan of action, and picking someone to lead these efforts.

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This type of local planning and organizing helps make voter engagement pervasive, reaching all individuals in our society, so it’s not seen as a marginal or an add-on activity. It ensures that conversations about voting and our democracy are ongoing, not something that surges in the news and on Facebook every four years. It encourages institutions we interact with every day – our libraries, our hospitals, our community centers – to promote voting and civic engagement continuously in our daily lives.

Let’s start this Election Day with supporting more young people in getting to the polls, and let’s make sure it’s a conversation we never stop having.