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What can a community’s media environment say about youth voter turnout?
A recent study from CIRCLE probes the relationship between young Americans and the external forces shaping their likelihood to vote. The answer isn't cut and dry.
When I ask young people where they get their news, a lot say TikTok. Some say local outlets, like ‘channel 7’ (most add that’s because their parents turn it on). Many name specific influencers — recently a young woman in Miami said she turns to ‘Coffeezilla,’ a YouTuber with nearly 3 million subscribers focused on “uncover[ing] scams,” according to his profile, mostly in the vein of cryptocurrency.
Community by community, young Americans’ answers to this question vary widely. And while there are common threads — social media, friends and family, and maybe, the news — when it comes to civic and political information, there’s really not one single framework.
In a study to gauge the relationship between young Americans and the external forces shaping their likelihood to vote, the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts (CIRCLE) compared media ecosystems and youth voter turnout rates.
In examining what shapes a media ecosystem, CIRCLE considered: media density (media outlets and libraries), digital access (ie. who has broadband and internet devices), social media use, nonprofit density, and library investments (budget and staff).
Here's what they found:
Weak Media Ecosystems ---> Lowest youth voter turnout in 2020 and 2022
Nearly one quarter (23%) of US counties have what CIRCLE dubs a “weak media ecosystem.” These counties are mostly in the South and have a high share of Black residents, low income households, and a high level of income inequality. These counties had the lowest youth voter turnout in 2020 and 2022.
Superb Civic and Media Institutions ---> highest youth voter turnout in 2022
On the contrary, just 4% of counties have what is considered “superb civic and media institutions.” These are mostly counties in rural, western communities, with mostly white residents and residents who identify in the “other” category (i.e. not Asian, Black, Hispanic/Latino or white), moderately high household incomes and a low level of income inequality. These counties had the highest youth voter turnout in 2020 and 2022.
According to CIRCLE's study, the “superb civic and media institutions” have high nonprofit density, library investment, and media density.
Somewhere in the middle...
33% of counties have what CIRCLE calls an “average media ecosystem.” These counties are mostly midwestern and have the highest ratio of white residents, lowest portion of Hispanic/Latino residents, and average household incomes. These counties had below average youth voter turnout in 2020 and 2022.
14% of counties have a combination of "strong nonprofits, weak social media use." These counties are more rural, mostly in the Midwest, as well as the South and West. They have a high portion of white residents, lowest portion of Black residents, and moderately high household income. These counties had above average youth voter turnout in 2020 and 2022.
Meanwhile, 10% of American counties, mostly in moderately rural southern areas, are considered “digitally disconnected.” These counties have a high portion of Black residents, low household income, and high income inequality. These counties had the second-lowest youth voter turnout in 2022 and below average in 2020.
‘There’s a lot of work to do’
In a conversation with CIRCLE researcher Sara Suzuki, she shared a bit about the methodology behind the study.
“It was not a survey. What we did was collect data on these indicators like libraries, internet access, social media use at the county level so that each county had a score on these dimensions, and then ran a study to create typologies of counties. We looked at the difference between the typologies and their voter turnout,” Suzuki told The Up and Up.
So, I asked Suzuki, what can we make of this?
“A surprising or sort of sobering finding was that there were not a cluster of communities that scored highly on everything,” she said. The “lack of a finding,” was “in itself a sobering fact,” she added. “It suggests there’s a lot of work to do.”
When it comes to supporting youth civic engagement, which in this study was measured as youth voter turnout, “media alone isn’t enough,” Suzuki said.
“A rich media ecosystem with strong civic infrastructure in the form of nonprofits and organizations, and other community resources like well-funded libraries, is needed to support young people with taking action,” she said. “These places may serve as political homes that help young people make sense of the issues and events in their community and figure out how to have impact.”
I’m curious, what do you consider a 'political home’?
On the horizon in the nation’s capital…
Voters of Tomorrow is hosting its ‘Leaders of Tomorrow’ summit next week at The Watergate Hotel in D.C. — a convening of young civic and political leaders with a goal of boosting youth voter turnout in 2024. The summit will feature a line up of speakers such as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Gen Z leaders including Rep. Maxwell Frost, Maryland state Del. Joe Vogel, North Carolina Democratic Party Leader Anderson Clayton (who will deliver the opening address), New York City Council Member Chi Ossé, and millennial Tennessee state Rep. Justin Jones.
I’m told the group is planning to have about 250 attendees. Panel topics will range from digital strategy, to protecting education, and polling Gen Z.
‘Birth Control Will Finally Be Sold Over the Counter. These Young Activists Pushed to Make It Happen.’
Last week the FDA approved the birth control pill, Opill, for over-the-counter sales with no age restrictions. It will hit pharmacy shelves in early 2024. The decision is considered a major win in the reproductive and sexual healthcare space, as advocates have been pushing for this for years (and they argue, the stakes of this decision are even higher in a post-Roe environment). Just ahead of the FDA’s decision, young people with a group called the #FreeThePill youth council testified to an FDA advisory committee about the barriers they’ve faced while trying to get birth control, coming from rural communities, religious families, and being young. You can read all about their experiences in my latest story for Elle Magazine.
Youth vote in the news 🗞
Young conservatives board the ‘Trump Train to 2024, Elena Moore for NPR
And on Monday at 11am ET, the Washington Post Live is hosting a conversation with Anderson Clayton, ‘N.C. Democratic chair on reaching young voters and rural communities’