Chicago’s youngest voters are ‘the future’ — so why don’t more of them vote?

Chicago’s youngest voting bloc — 18-to-24-year-olds — has the lowest turnout relative to size, though nearly a third more cast ballots in the April runoff than in the first round of mayoral voting in February.

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An election judge hands an “I Voted” sticker to a voter on the final day of early voting in the runoff election at the downtown voting super site, Monday, April 3, 2023.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Complete coverage of the local and national primary and general election, including results, analysis and voter resources to keep Chicago voters informed.
Youth voting takeaways

Takeaways

  • Small size, small turnout: While Chicago voters ages 18 to 24 make up the smallest bloc of registered voters, they also have the smallest turnout relative to size.
  • Campaign engagement: Some experts suggest campaigns don’t spend time on young voters, who go to the polls less consistently than older groups.
  • Youngest to youngest: According to Gen Z candidates elected in 2023, it was easier for them to talk to young people on the campaign trail because they shared similar language around policy.
  • Looking ahead: Wisconsin is a better show of what’s to come from young voters in 2024 than Chicago’s most recent election, as municipal elections have low turnout overall.


Chicago’s municipal elections had 10 candidates under the age of 30, the incoming City Council is the youngest it’s ever been and younger voters — ages 18 to 24 — have been cited as game-changers in Chicago’s recent mayoral election.

Still, though more young people voted in Chicago’s recent April runoff than in February, that youngest voting bloc still had the lowest turnout of all age groups in the city.

Nationally, turnout among young voters has mostly increased since 2014.

“Candidates need to take young people seriously,” said Debbie Southorn, a campus outreach coordinator for United Working Families. “Young people have been at the forefront of social change movements throughout history. … We may have been a small margin this time, but it was the deciding margin.”

Where are young voters?

Illinois was one of 16 states with lower young voter registration in 2022 than in 2018, which aligns with population shifts. The Census Bureau estimates the city has lost about 14,000 20-to-24-year-olds since 2018.

About 110,000 residents age 18 to 24 are registered to vote in Chicago. That’s the lowest number of any age group; second-lowest are residents 75 and older, with about 141,000 registered.

In the first round of voting, on Feb. 28, about 566,000 votes were cast in Chicago, with just 3.2% of those ballots cast by 18-to-24-year-olds.

Jacob Arena, a 22-year-old member-elect of the 25th Police District Council, said young people “don’t see themselves in positions of power,” creating an “impostor syndrome” and disconnect between young people and politics.

“We have to inform [young people] that they can have the control and they can have the power,” Arena said. “If they think they don’t have a say in what goes on in ... local politics, why would they want to be active? Why would they care?”

Anthony Tamez, 23, member-elect of the 17th Police District Council and another one of the youngest people elected to office this cycle, said reaching out to young people during his campaign was easier because they used the same language when it came to policy.

Anthony Tamez was recently elected to one of the newly-created local citizen councils that will help oversee the Chicago Police Department.

Anthony Tamez was recently elected to one of the newly created local citizen councils that will help oversee the Chicago Police Department. Tamez was elected in the 17th Police District, which includes the Irving Park and Avondale neighborhoods, among others.

Provided

“It’s like talking to your friends,” said Tamez. “We have a lot of the same experiences.”

Tamez said he could use phrases like “defund the police” with younger constituents, as they knew he wasn’t aiming for immediate abolition but rather reform and a push toward community policing models.

A genuine connection between politicians and young people, such as continuing to engage them after the election, is something Katrina Phidd — communications director of Chicago Votes, a youth outreach organization trying to drive young people to engage with city politics — suggested to keep the age group involved.

“The way campaigns engage with young people is important and telling of how much they value young people,” Phidd said. “Elected officials need to show up in youth spaces in a way that doesn’t feel so transactional.”

Campaigns’ interactions could affect turnout

Phidd blames campaign strategies and Chicago’s history with “machine politics” maintaining a “status quo.”

“They want to turn out the consistent voters, and young people don’t really fall into that demographic of consistent voters,” Phidd said, adding that older voters are considered more reliable. “We need to be reaching out to the unlikely voters.”

Christian Perry, deputy political director for the Brandon Johnson campaign and current transition team adviser, said their approach this year tried to avoid pitfalls of past candidates in reaching younger voters.

“Campaign culture” he said, has in the past caused campaigns to look at voter demographics and make “financial decisions” without doing “enough interrogation of ourselves” on where resources are going.

Still, there was a surge in younger voters in the mayoral runoff.

In February, about 18,000 voters in the youngest category cast ballots. That’s about 16% of the registered voters in that age group.

But in April, they cast about 5,000 more ballots.

Voters 75 and older, in contrast, cast about 5,000 fewer votes in April. In February, about half the registered voters in that group voted, casting about 70,000 ballots.

Looking to 2024

University of Illinois Chicago’s political science department head and former 44th Ward Ald. Dick Simpson said increasing education on government and how the voting process works is one of the most important parts of getting younger voters to the polls.

State law requires high school students be offered civics classes, though he said that alone isn’t enough. Outreach also plays a role, and he urged campaigns to tailor platforms for young voters while also meeting them in spaces with younger audiences like social media, which he said was underutilized this election cycle.

Simpson said Wisconsin’s recent election — which saw a more than 500% increase in turnout in some precincts that include college campuses — could be a better litmus for what’s to come than Chicago’s municipal election, both because of the national stakes and also because municipal elections tend to have low participation across the board.

“The next most important election is 2024, which will determine the direction of the country,” Simpson said. “[So] it should be easy to galvanize youth.”

Arena agreed, looking beyond the next cycle.

“Us young people are the future,” he said.

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