Fort Lewis College students examined the factors that motivate young people to vote during a semester that featured a highly contentious midterm election.
Turnout among young voters in La Plata County during the 2018 midterm election far outpaced midterms in 2014.
Across the county, 42 percent of voters 18 to 25 years old, or about 2,200 residents, participated in the November election, La Plata County Clerk and Recorder Tiffany Parker said.
During the 2014 election, 28 percent of voters 18 to 25 years old participated, or about 1,350 residents, she said.
The boost in turnout followed efforts by La Plata County Democrats and Republicans, and a nonpartisan group called New Era Colorado Foundation, to encourage young voters to cast ballots.
While millennials are the largest voting bloc in the U.S., young voters are the least likely to participate in elections, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
This semester, FLC political science students dug into what motivates those 18 to 25 to vote, said assistant professor Paul DeBell.
Students explored well-established predictors of participation, such as a personal belief that participating will make a difference, and a few factors that are not well understood, such as social media use, he said.
The students surveyed several hundred FLC students and paid for a company to survey 250 young people from across the nation, he said.
Political science senior Desiderya Costello said she found a connection between the time a young voter spent using social media and a sense that participation in an election would make a difference.
As time spent on social media increased, so did personal beliefs in the importance of political participation, she said. The belief that participation can make a difference is a good predictor someone will cast a vote, she said.
While the survey data showed social media use does not directly influence voter participation, it likely does play a role, Costello said.
“It’s impossible for you to go through your feed and not see something political,” she said.
Sociology senior Ruby McGeehon said she explored whether face-to-face discussion could be used as a tool to counter the effects of political polarization in a community.
Highly polarized politics are problematic because they focus the political process on scoring points rather than solving problems, DeBell said.
In addition to posing survey questions, McGeehon also held four discussion groups featuring topics such as immigration, capitalism and universal health care, she said.
“The biggest thing that I found was that we oftentimes forget the value of listening,” she said.
McGeehon said moderated and facilitated discussions can address polarization, but she did not measure the difference it made in her groups in a concrete way. She did notice some common ground, she said.
“Generally speaking, most of the people really care about humans and the planet,” she said.
DeBell said he hopes to apply some of what the students learned to help engage more FLC students in the political process in the future.