Exclusive: MTV launches "Voting Early is Easier" campaign targeting young voters

MTV is aiming to boost the numbers of young voters with an early voting campaign ahead of this year's midterm elections, which will decide control of Congress for the next two years.  

The global media giant's “Voting Early is Easier” plan zeroes in on voters on college campuses— a group that has historically faced barriers to voting.

Young voters were a key part of the coalition that ousted former President Donald Trump from office and elected President Joe Biden in 2020. With control of Congress on the line in 2022, neither party can likely notch enough seats to control the legislative branch without young Americans.

"I think that for people that do go to college right after high school, your first time voting is going to be while you're in your four years of college," said Jasmine Young, 23, a data science graduate student at Duke University. The university has partnered with MTV this election cycle on a study on college voting access.

"I was interested in working on this project, because I ... had some trouble voting myself while I was at school and figuring that process out," said Young, a researcher in the Campus Voting Access Project.

The early voting campaign is part of helping young people come of age and transition into adulthood, said Chris McCarthy, president and CEO of Paramount Media Networks and MTV Entertainment Studios.

"A big part of that is understanding your power and registering to vote and being an active member of your community," McCarthy said. 

MTV is working with civic engagement groups and college student partners on a campus challenge that builds upon new research, expands onsite polling options for college students through an open-source toolkit and, ultimately, mobilizes young voters to once again return to the polls. 

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AUSTIN, TX: People vote at the Carver Branch Library on March 1, 2022 in Austin, Texas. Texans voted in the states first primary of the 2022 midterm election season.

Turnout rates rising among young voters

Historically, young Americans vote at lower rates than older generations. But in recent years, youth voter turnout rates have increased.

Young adults had the greatest turnout increase during the 2020 presidential election.

About half of young adults age 18-29 voted, according to the Brookings Institution. During the 2018 midterm elections, 18-29-year-olds had a 36% voter turnout rate, itself a 16 percentage point increase from the 2014 midterms. 

Kelly Beadle, impact and outreach manager at Tufts University's Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), said that the record level of youth voting in 2020 could bode well for the midterms. 

"One unique thing about the 2022 election is that we are starting the year with more young people who have participated ahead of this midterm really than we've seen in the last several decades," Beadle said. "So it is a bit of a different era in terms of youth civic participation." 

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Closing the gap between registrations and votes

MTV is hoping to keep the momentum going into the 2022 midterms. 

Brianna Cayo Cotter, senior vice president of social impact at MTV Entertainment Group, said during the 2020 election it became clear that while voter registration is important, it wouldn't help increase young voter turnout.   

"The vast majority of young people actually are already registered to vote. And the problem that we really needed to solve was how do we close the gap between voter registration and actual turnout." Cayo Cotter said. 

More than half of American citizens age 18-24, 59.8%, are registered to vote, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But only 51.4% of them actually voted in 2020. 

The percentage of American citizens age 25-44 who are registered to vote is 70.1%, and a little over three quarters of those age 45-64, 75.7%, are registered to vote. Nearly 80% of citizens age 65-74 are registered to vote and for those age 75 and above, 77.8% are registered to vote. 

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Cayo Cotter said voting before election day became one solution to increase youth turnout. 

But research shows lack of transportation and inconvenient polling barriers have hindered college students' ability to vote. Hence, MTV collaborating with various organizations and students to increase access to onsite voting locations.

MTV launched a pilot election program in 2020 with the advocacy groups Campus Vote Project, the Students Learn Students Vote Coalition and the Alliance for Youth Organizing to expand polling sites on college campuses, with participating students working in 14 states. 

Data from Tufts found campuses that participated in the pilot program voted at a rate four percentage points higher than the national average in 2020. 

Nov 3, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA; Natalie Azmitia of Los Angeles listens to a mariachi band performing at the Dodger Stadium voting center during election day for the 2020 Presidential election. The mariachi band serenaded first-time voters.

No on-campus voting

More recently, the results from Duke and MTV's Campus Voting Access Project were striking. 

"Generally we found that most college campuses didn't have an election day voting option that was on campus, and even more campuses didn't have an early voting option on campus," said Young, one of the Duke University research students. 

The preliminary results showed that of the 35 states where election day polling information is available, 74% of college campuses did not have in-person polling options on campus and 90% lacked early voting options during the 2020 election. At least 6.6 million students were affected. 

College students at two-year community colleges were more likely to bear the brunt of this lack of access compared to students at four-year institutions.

The preliminary findings also showed that 46% of four-year colleges had polling sites that were more than one mile away. 

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"With the results we got through our exercise we can actually find out locations where there's a lack of access to polling places and that can be mapped out. You can see things the areas which are quite good, quite low access, high access points," said Pranav Manjunath, a Duke University student on the research team. 

Dapo Adegbile, a member of the research team, said because the findings showed where underserved campuses are, that can help lead to solutions. 

"I think the goal of this is to highlight discrepancies and to ultimately address them. And I think addressing them looks like trying to get more polling places in those locations," said Adegbile. 

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MTV is working with Campus Vote Project, a program of the Fair Elections Center, on a 2022 campus challenge to increase early voting options on campuses. The work will focus on historically Black colleges and universities, minority-serving institutions, two-year community colleges and large public universities. 

"We thought we'd start there [with two-year community colleges] because that is definitely a population that is constrained with time," McCarthy said. "And if we can make it easier for them to get involved and have a voice, hopefully we can engage them ... where becoming a voter becomes part of their identity." 

Students who want to advocate for voting locations on campus can use MTV's open-source toolkit at  Challenge.VotingEarlyisEasier.com for help. Other incentives MTV is offering include grants for the Vote Early Day celebrations and tickets to this year's VMAs. 

Moderator Gloria Pilotte wears a "Vote" pin during the New Hampshire Primary at Bishop O'Neill Youth Center in Manchester, N.H.

Makin voting a habit

Amanda Wintersieck, assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University, said efforts like MTV's early voting campaign are important because they help young adults form lifelong voting habits. 

"The other good thing about this type of voter turnout effort is that a lot of the time voters don't vote because they're not asked," Wintersieck said. "And so it is really important to reach out to groups of historic non-voters and to make clear that their vote matters, that their participation is wanted and that they're welcome at the polls." 

Beadle also said it's important to help young voters stay registered if they move frequently. 

"I hope that efforts like MTV will help to bring suites of online tools to young people so that they can essentially do all of this in one place—check their registration status, update their registration in the 41 states that allow you to do that online and then request an absentee ballot," Beadle added. 

MTV previously launched Vote Early Day, a new national day of celebration meant to encourage Americans to vote early, on Oct. 24, 2020. The campaign originally brought together more than 60 partners to educate young voters on what their state’s laws are related to early voting. This year's Vote Early Day is on Oct. 28. 

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Students at George Washington University drop off absentee ballots Oct. 18, 2018 at a "Party at the Mailbox" event.

Cayo Cotter said the campaign exceeded expectations and led to more than 2,700 partners. 

"We really were on to something there, and we've spent the last year really helping figure out how to create a more permanent home and infrastructure for vote early days," Cayo Cotter. 

Wintersieck said it's important to arm young voters with the knowledge and importance of voting. 

"If you want to see a change in power and change in representation, then we need to arm our young people with the knowledge that these are systems that are intentionally set up to leave them out," Wintersieck said. "It's going to require extra work on their part to get to the polls to elect the people that they want to see in these offices."