Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg

Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg is the executive director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. 

Dennis Drenner for Tufts University

Wisconsin's April 5 primary election brought an estimated one-in-three eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 29, according to analysis from Tufts University's Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. The candidates who benefited most from that youth support were the two respective primary winners: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

CIRCLE director Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg spoke with the Cap Times about how Wisconsin's youth turnout compares with other states and what can be done to bring more young people to the polls.

What were the big takeaways from Wisconsin?

Wisconsin used to turn out at a pretty high rate for a primary. There was definitely no disappointment there — there was 33 percent youth turnout — but it was actually higher than we thought. Usually a primary is a slice of the participation from the previous general election. It's unusual to see a primary exceeding the "real" election. 

Wisconsin is sort of following the trend in recent weeks — young Democratic participation is record-breaking, at least it exceeds the 2008 level. That's something we weren’t seeing in earlier primary races.

Both the Republican and Democratic young voters are showing up in large numbers.

In Wisconsin’s case it seemed like the Republican participation was really high overall. Despite the fact that young Republicans more than doubled their participation, their share of the electorate didn’t increase at all. For young Democrats, they were more influential in the result of the Democratic race.

How long have you been doing this?

We were established in 2001, really in response to the low, low turnout in that time. We’ve come a long way. 

How did Wisconsin compare to other states this year?

Wisconsin had the second-highest turnout, second only to New Hampshire, which is always one of the top states. Wisconsin has been expected to have an impact in the general election, ranked sixth in both the Senate and presidential race in our Youth Electoral Significance Index

Wisconsin's young voters are a little more independent or bipartisan than some others states’ youth. They don't necessarily support Democratic candidates by a huge, huge margin.

This primary turnout certainly indicates that Wisconsin's young people are ready to participate regardless of their political ideology.

When I just look at participation by party among young people, there were close to 90,000 more young Democrats than Republicans. That balance isn’t uncommon. That’s more balanced than it was in 2008 when more than four times as many young Democrats came out to vote as young Republicans.

What kind of factors contribute to youth turnout?

The investment in outreach really matters. Last time we looked at this in the 2014 midterm, youth turnout overall was 19.9 percent, the lowest ever recorded. The last presidential election was 45 percent. Whenever there’s less resources, young people are never asked to participate, and so they don’t participate.

Related to resources is the media coverage and access to information. If the media isn’t talking about a presidential election, young people are less likely to become aware of both the topics as well as some issues that might impact them in access to voting.

In Wisconsin, there was a student ID rule this time that could be quite confusing.

This may be really specific to this particular election season: the sense of urgency the young people are showing in casting their votes. For Republican party participation, we’re seeing a huge number we’ve never seen in recent years, especially given that young people had been saying for the last few years voting isn’t that effective.

For example, on the Republican side, there's enough young people coming out to stop Donald Trump, and at the same time, there are really passionate Donald Trump supporters as well.

On the Democratic side, we see 50 as an age split, that really divides support between two candidates.

So for young people who have seen the most diverse generation, and have only seen dysfunctional national politics as adults ... they really want to see change in a much more meaningful way than past generations have been able to do.

They seem to feel strongly about support for Bernie Sanders, and among young Bernie Sanders supporters, only two-thirds of them said they would support Hillary Clinton. 

Young people are not necessarily willing to just support a candidate because of the party. Fifty percent of them are independent, and they mean it. They don’t show the party loyalty we’ve seen in the past.

Does this tell us anything about what to expect in the general election?

Young people will have really hard choices to make regardless of who’s running. If we think about the current frontrunners as the likely nominees, a majority of people combined would have something against them.

It’s sort of a battle of the principles in some ways. For non-Trump supporters who are conservative, they have to decide if it’s worth coming out to vote or letting the rest of the nation decide. It's the same with Democratic voters in some ways.

To that end, I can’t even predict the turnout. Twenty percent of Bernie Sanders voters said they would just sit out the election (if he's not the nominee). Some said they would support Donald Trump.

Is there more Trump-Sanders crossover among young voters?

Both Trump and Sanders share that outside perspective. I’ve really mostly looked at the youth polling, but one thing that is really striking is both candidates' supporters were more likely to say the American dream is dead. They both express a huge sense of disappointment in how things are going, but they attribute different root causes to that problem. For Donald Trump supporters, it’s about immigrants coming in, us intervening too much overseas. For liberal folks who support Bernie Sanders, that’s a call for a radical shift or a political revolution. They come from the same conclusion about the country but have different root causes and therefore different solutions. But there’s some crossover because of that.

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Why is it important to reach young voters? 

Research actually indicates it’s important to get the habit of voting going early. Getting someone to identify as a voter is really important for their long-term civic health  and the outcome of democracy, which should include diverse voices of different kinds of people: young, old, different educational backgrounds, different economic backgrounds.

If we don’t do that, really actively engage the youngest of voters, then we create a system that has an uneven power and voice.

What can be done do to drive up youth participation?

One of the reasons why we did this Youth Electoral Significance Index is to really communicate the fact that young people matter. The can impact national elections if they collectively participate in large numbers.

That said, there’s really something we have to address as a country — the distrust toward mainstream parties and institutions. Politicians often have the lowest rating in trust because they’re seen as something that's corrupt as an institution.

The candidates, campaigns and systems of voting have to be improved in gaining the trust that it is working, that it’s a fair system, that it’s worth investing in.

Do voter ID laws have an effect on youth voting?

We did national research in 2012, when there was a surge of voter ID laws being passed. What we did find was it really did impact the most vulnerable populations: the students, young people without college experience. They tend to be poor, more minorities. Those were the people that had experienced lower turnout rates as a result of having a photo ID law — but even then, 2012 was a special year, with lots of resources and activism to push back. Rides were given to the DMV, IDs being brought to people. But 2012 was also a noncompetitive primary, not huge turnout. That kind of thing really minimizes some of the potential impact of laws like that.

So 2016 is really the first true test where there may not be as much attention on laws like this, and very high turnout is expected because of what’s at stake. We're already starting to see issues with long lines, people getting confused about registration status.

It’s not just one law, it’s how the election is run and how well informed citizens can be about how and when and who can vote.

Does electronic registration do anything to encourage youth turnout?

In a state that has online registration, young people do in fact take advantage of it. But we're hearing from election clerks, when online registration happens, many young people are not really getting registered with a party, and that can be a problem in states with a closed primary.

So sometimes having that in-person contact does have that advantage. You can also have complacency if you registered online a few years ago and don’t update it.

But certainly in terms of numbers they seem to be seeing good impact.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.