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Young citizens’ record of participation in American elections is dismal. Although young people comprise the largest block of voting eligible citizens, they turn out at significantly lower rates than older Americans. It is not uncommon to see older citizens vote at rates twice as high as younger citizens in congressional elections. A surge in youth turnout in the 2008 presidential election—the highest in three decades—sparked hope of a new era of youth civic engagement, but turnout levels declined again by the next election: with less than half of young citizens voting in 2012 and 2016 and only one in five voting in the 2010 and 2014 midterms. As shown in the below figure, which plots voter turnout by age over time, the turnout gap is not new. On average, the turnout gap between young citizens (18-29) and older citizens (60+) is 33 percentage points across all elections — 28 percentage points in presidential elections, and 37 percentage points in midterms.
A variety of reforms have been passed in recent years that have the potential to increase youth participation. Pre-registration is a relatively new electoral reform that allows North Carolinians as young as 16 to complete their registration application so that they are automatically added to registration rolls once they come of age. Studies show that pre-registration significantly increases youth voter turnout and civic engagement.