Many Marylanders, especially young Marylanders, are not participating in elections. In the 2016 presidential election, turnout in Maryland as a percentage of the voting population was at its lowest in 24 years. In 2018, turnout of voters under 29 was at 31% compared to 47.5% of all eligible voters who turned out. While this was an increase of 10% in youth voter participation since the last midterm election, we need to do better.
Numerous studies have shown that voting is habit-forming, and youth who vote are more likely to become life-long voters. Likewise, young people who are registered to vote turn out in high numbers, very close to the rate of older voters. The voter registration gap in young people is a driving force in low youth voter participation.
In Maryland PIRG’s 45-year history of working with young people and running non-partisan voter registration drives, we have found that most young people want to and intend to participate in voting, but as new voters, they struggle to navigate the voter registration system or forget they need to update their registration when they move.
During the 2018 midterm elections, for example, Maryland PIRG students helped register and turn out more than 2,800 University of Maryland students to vote. Election after election, we have found that if we ask students to vote and help them navigate the system, they will.
We must make sure people are registered to vote, know how, where, and when to vote, and that they turn out to vote on Election Day, so that they become life-long voters and active participants in our democracy.
This legislative session, we have a great opportunity to address student voter participation head on. The Student Voter Empowerment Act, sponsored by Delegate Eric Luedtke and Senator Clarence Lam can serve as a useful tool in increasing participation. The bill requires campuses to develop strong action plans for turning out students to vote, requires prominent online voter registration, and increases polling locations on campuses.
Maryland has made great strides in the last few years to modernize our voter registration systems with same-day voter registration and automatic voter registration. But even these reforms and the Student Voter Empowerment Act are not guaranteed to solve our problem. In order to increase voter participation among young people, students, and all demographics, we must carefully monitor the implementation of state voter registration policies and engage in active get out the vote campaigns.
So I hope you’ll join us in the effort in 2020 by: calling on your state legislators to support policies like the Student Voter Empowerment Act; helping watchdog implementation of voter modernization efforts; helping new voters register for this years elections; and, help get out the vote!
 A Boatload Of Ballots: Midterm Voter Turnout Hit 50-Year High, NPR, November 8, 2018.