Election year is fast approaching, and reporters around the country are planning their coverage.
Young voters – defined as those who are aged 18 to 29 – have shown themselves to be fierce participants in past elections.
“Between 2016 and 2020, youth voter turnout jumped by  points. In 2022, Gen Z recorded the highest turnout in the first midterm compared to other generations,” said Jessica Huseman, editorial director for the nonprofit newsroom Votebeat.
Huseman moderated a session on the youth vote during the Education Writers Association’s 2023 Higher Education Seminar this September in Riverside, California. The session’s speaker panel included Courtney Hope Britt of College Republican National Committee, Jonathan Collins of Brown University, Abby Kiesa of Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), and Victor Shi of Voters of Tomorrow.
Here’s what reporters should keep in mind when covering the concerns and issues of young voters and how to make their stories engaging.
1. When exploring what young voters care about, consider where students receive their education and how it influences their voting choices.
People typically think of traditional four-year universities when thinking about higher education, according to Courtney Hope Britt, chair of the College Republican National Committee.
Britt shared her community college experience and how invested community college students can be in local elections.
Many community college students are interested in politics because they are plugged into the community, she explained. They genuinely care about local issues, such as road maintenance or the placement of stop lights.
She also said community college students seem to have a better understanding of budgeting due to working while attending school or financial self-sufficiency compared to four-year students who may not be working.
2. When utilizing data on young voters, consider their age and other differences.
While there’s a broad generalization that all young people lean liberal, research has shown they aren’t a monolith. Engage with young people directly to complement data usage.
There are incredible youth organizations active in their communities that can help reporters enrich their stories, said Abby Kiesa, deputy director at CIRCLE.
Use discernment when drawing conclusions about young people from polls that include various generations, she added. Youth may comprise a small percentage of polls with 1,500 people or less, she explained.
The panelists also pointed out that reasons for voting can be highly individual and generational.
Jonathan Collins, assistant professor at Brown University, elaborated on the psychological motivations behind voting.
While older Black generations saw voting as symbolic and their civic duty, young Black voters may have different perspectives, Collins said
3. These are a few systemic barriers reporters should consider when covering young voters.
High schoolers and college students around the country are facing new barriers to voting due to actions by Republican-controlled legislatures. For example, taking effect in January 2024, Idaho dropped student IDs from its list of acceptable identification to vote. This is part of the wave of restrictive voting laws passed in the U.S. over the past decade. Here’s this year’s roundup of restrictive voting laws from the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute.
While there has been a surge of restrictive voting laws in recent years, these efforts are not new. For example, a 2006 Georgia statute prevents students from most of the state’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other private universities from using their school IDs to vote.
Other structural barriers to youth voting include lack of access to polling stations, Collins explained.
He also pointed out that even though schools often become polling stations during election years, students knowing the location of their polling station can be a challenge.
Collins also raised concerns about the timing of voting, as young voters might be in class or working during normal poll hours.
4. Here’s where to find young people for your story.
The panel offered suggestions to help reporters find young voices to include in their coverage.
- Voters of Tomorrow, a Gen Z-led nonprofit engaging and representing young people in politics and government, has state chapters. Various college campuses also have non-partisan organizations that encourage young voters.
- Engage with young people you encounter in your daily life, such as restaurant staff, people at church or social events, and within your family.
- Be culturally aware and sensitive to young people’s backgrounds, connecting your subject to a broader audience. Create a story that reflects their experiences and approach conversations thoughtfully.
- Recognize that not all young people are enrolled in college. According to Kiesa, roughly 40% of 18-24-year-olds are currently enrolled in college. Be creative when searching for non-traditional students in career-based associations, trade schools, or GED programs. These students can provide a nuanced perspective on what young voters care about.
5. What can journalists do to explain politics in a more engaging way for young people?
Policy is everywhere, and reporters need to identify policies that young voters care about the most.
To put it simply, Collins explained how every experience represents some form of policy change. He used the example of social media regulation as a topic his students were passionate about.
Victor Shi, a UCLA senior who is part of Voters of Tomorrow, encouraged publishing stories through different media, such as TikTok or Instagram Reels, citing SCOTUSBlog’s TikToks as an example of aggregating information from stories.
The panel encouraged reporters to bring a new perspective to understanding elections and provided a few story suggestions:
- Fact-check information presented to college campuses, as it may contain errors.
- Focus on more centrist viewpoints.
- Explore how young people experience culture wars.
- Examine how young people under 18 mobilize their families and communities to vote.
- Investigate how young people feel about voting in a red state.