Making Young Voters: Policy Reforms to Increase Youth Turnout (2017-2018)


Voter turnout among young Americans is dismal—typically 20-30 percentage points lower than among older citizens. Low levels of voter turnout among young people may not reflect a lack of civic-mindedness, but rather may be the consequence of a combination of institutional and motivational obstacles that get in the way of people participating in politics.

Project Description

This Bass Connections project team will contribute to an ongoing project that bridges political science, education and human development and will evaluate the effects of two sets of policy reforms that seek to reduce or eliminate the problem of low youth turnout from two complementary directions—one within the education system and one related to election administration. The team will examine the potential for educational and electoral policy reforms to set young people on a path toward civic engagement.

The team will leverage an existing partnership with the Wake County Public School System that developed student surveys about school engagement, noncognitive skills and civic attitudes and behaviors that have been matched to school administrative records. Team members will continue the collection and analysis of these longitudinal student data, create and analyze a national database of state-level civic education and electoral policies, match Wake County student data to voter registration records and develop a randomized intervention for the 2018 midterm election.

The broad goal of the project is to evaluate potential education and electoral policies to promote youth civic engagement. Specific aims of the project are to:

  1. Continue to survey Wake County Public School students, augmenting the value of data already collected from this population by extending data collection across a longer period of time
  2. Enrich the information available by matching individual survey results to administrative records and voter files
  3. Construct a nationwide database of electoral and civic education policies in all states
  4. Develop and implement an intervention aimed at mobilizing young voters in 2018.

The combination of large data sources provides a unique opportunity to gain a comprehensive look at the electoral and educational policies that influence youth voter turnout. The richness of the data that the team will bring together offers a number of advantages over previous work—providing a combination of self-report and administrative records that balance the strengths and weakness of each type of measure, longitudinal survey data that allow for tracking changes in measures over time and sufficiently large “big data” sources that allow for identifying specific data subsets with stronger causal inference (e.g., sibling and twin pairs).

The team will use a variety of statistical methods to answer motivating questions such as:

  • Do noncognitive skills predict voter turnout? Can schools increase youth turnout by developing students’ noncognitive skills?
  • Is a facts-based civic education curriculum beneficial or detrimental to youth turnout? For example, what is the impact of AP government on civic attitudes and behaviors?
  • What K-12 experiences, environmental factors and policies influence whether youth become active voters? For example, do state civics requirements promote turnout? Are civics requirements more effective at particular grade levels? Does taking a civics course during an election year increase voter registration?
  • Which electoral reforms are effective at increasing youth voter turnout?

Results from the first survey wave of fifth, eighth and ninth graders in the Wake County Public Schools show that students’ noncognitive skills are strong predictors of academic achievement (end-of-grade math and verbal scores), school engagement and civic attitudes. As additional waves of the survey are made available, the team will be able to take advantage of longitudinal approaches to offer a more compelling statistical analysis (e.g., individual-level fixed effects model).

Anticipated Outcomes

Research publications, reports for the education policy stakeholders of Wake County, archived original datasets on state electoral and educational policies for use by other scholars for future research


Summer 2017 – Spring 2018

  • Summer 2017: Analysis of Wave 1 and Wave 2 survey results; collection of state civic education and electoral policies
  • Fall 2017: Development of interventions for 2018 election; presentations of results at American Political Science Association Meeting in September 2017 and Association of Public Policy Analysis & Management in November 2017
  • Spring 2018: Wave 3 of survey; voter registration experiment for 2018 primary elections; presentations of results at American Association of Public Opinion Researchers in May 2018

Team Outcomes to Date

Making Young Voters: Policy Reforms to Increase Youth Voter Turnout (talk by Noah Eckberg and James Wang), EHDx, April 19, 2018

Making Young Voters: Policy Reforms to Increase Youth Voter Turnout (poster by Sarah Ali, Samuel Ditesheim, Noah Eckberg, Donghun Lee, James Chenyang Wang, Sakiko Nishida), presented at Bass Connections Showcase, April 18, 2018, and EHDx, April 19, 2018

Project team website

See related team, Making Young Voters: Policy Reforms to Increase Youth Turnout (2018-2019).

/faculty/staff Team Members

  • Kyle Endres, Social Science Research Institute*
  • Christina Gibson-Davis, Sanford School of Public Policy*
  • Sunshine Hillygus, Arts & Sciences-Political Science*

/graduate Team Members

  • Jesse Lopez, Political Science-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Sarah Ali, Public Policy Studies (AB), Political Science (AB2)
  • Samuel Ditesheim, Political Science (AB)
  • Noah Eckberg, Economics (AB), Political Science (AB2)
  • Donghun (Louis) Lee, Mathematics (AB), Public Policy Studies (AB2)
  • Sachit Menon, Mathematics (AB), Statistical Science (BS2)
  • Sakiko Nishida, Public Policy Studies (AB), Political Science (AB2)
  • Sarah Sibley, Statistical Science (AB), Political Science (AB2)
  • James (Chenyang) Wang, Statistical Science (BS), Public Policy Studies (AB2)

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Wake County Public School System