This story aired in the June 4, 2024 episode of West Virginia Morning.


Voter turnout in West Virginia, and across the country, is low. It’s even worse among young voters who say they are disconnected and not interested.

Just before the May 14 primary election, two journalism students from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism based in Washington, D.C. — Meaghan Downey and Anastasia Mason — came to the Mountain State to report on the state’s low voter turnout and the effect it has on young voters.

They spoke with students at West Virginia University (WVU) and BridgeValley Community and Technical College. This is part of a larger project the journalism students are working on about how young peoples’ disillusionment with political institutions is a threat to democracy.

Listen to a longer version of this story at the audio player above.


We are in our early 20s and have both studied politics. We’re following the upcoming election pretty closely. But we realized a lot of our friends aren’t and we wanted to find out if we were unusual.

We discovered that, according to voting data, yes, we are. Young people turn out to vote a lot less than older people. And it’s worse in some states than others.

West Virginia is one of those states. In 2020, only four states had worse young voter turnout. For our research, we traveled to WVU. There, we asked the students whether they’ll participate in the upcoming election.

“Probably not. I just don’t really know a whole lot about it, you know?” said Emily Reed.

“I definitely feel like there’s not as many people who are like, focused on voting because they think that one vote can’t make a difference,” said Sam Carver.

Alanna Berry agreed with Reed and Carver. “Honestly, I don’t know who the candidates are. Are we talking about Biden?”

Most of the young people we met weren’t sure they were going to vote. We learned that 18 to 29-year-olds feel disconnected from politics across America. A poll released recently from Harvard’s Kennedy School showed the lowest levels of confidence in public institutions since the survey began 24 years ago.

According to Amherst College Professor Austin Sarat, it’s a stark contrast to previous generations.

“About 75 percent of people born in the 1930s say it is essential to live in a society governed democratically,” he said. “People born in the 1980s and later, that number is 25 percent.”

Younger generations are not voting, they’re frustrated, and they’re disillusioned with democracy. The question for the researchers was: “How did we get here?”

And more importantly: “Why don’t young West Virginians vote?”

It’s a problem that even long-term political organizers like the West Virginia Citizen Action Group have been struggling with. The organization has worked for nearly 50 years to encourage citizen participation in government.

Julie Archer, the group’s project manager, said the culture in West Virginia plays a role in why people don’t vote.

“Part of it might be like, kind of Appalachian fatalism,” she said. “We have had some examples of politicians that were pretty corrupt, and so anytime you have something like that, I think it just reflects negatively on even the people who are in there who are good and who are responsive to their constituents and want to do the right thing.”

For 80 years, West Virginia was a blue state. In 2000, the state flipped red and has voted increasingly conservative since. But Archer and her fellow activists say West Virginians feel that — whether it’s Democrats or Republicans in charge — the state’s big problems, especially poverty, don’t go away.

At a Sunday night potluck in Morgantown, local organizations gathered in the upstairs gym of a local church across the street from WVU. They’re talking about social, political and environmental justice.

Pamphlets are seen on a table. One reads, "Empowering Voters, Defending Democracy. The League of Women Voters of Morgantown-Monongalia County invites you to join us in making Democracy work!"The League of Women Voters was one of many local organizations in attendance at a Sunday night potluck in Morgantown, West Virginia last month.

Photo Credit: Anastasia Mason/West Virginia Public Broadcasting


Jessica Nelson is one of the few young people there. She tells us why voting is towards the bottom of many West Virginians’ to-do lists.

“Just taking time off to get to the poll is a huge challenge,” Nelson said. “You know, getting a ride, getting time off, having someone to watch your kids or cover your shift, things like that. And even if you could find all that stuff, it’s a headache to do it. Are you really going to do that every two years for something that feels like it has no effect?”

Nelson is the opinions editor for the local paper. She met up with her mom, Cynthia, and the two of them had lots of opinions. They agree that nonvoting only makes matters worse. And it’s at the local level where the most damage is done.

“Our neighboring county, Preston, the buildings are literally falling down around the students,” Cynthia Nelson said. ”And they can’t pass the levy to save their lives, because it’s a very impoverished county and people say, ‘I can’t afford those additional taxes to build a school.’”

Young West Virginians have grown up in a culture of nonvoting. And some saw the effects of it in their schools.

Young people who are interested in voting often feel shut out of politics or think they don’t know enough to cast their ballots. A 2022 poll from the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts found that only 40 percent of young people feel well-qualified to participate in politics.

In South Charleston at BridgeValley Community and Technical College, we met 21-year-old Alexzander Messer. We asked him if he felt young people were encouraged to vote. He is from Madison in Boone County.

“Maybe encouraged, but talked about only specifically usually in one way,” Messer said. “There’s one way to vote usually around here, especially where I’m from. Republican, typically.”

He noted that some areas and states vote traditionally Democrat.

“So I’m not really sure if people know what they vote for,” he said.

That one-sidedness of the political conversation has dissuaded Messer from voting, he said.

“I probably won’t vote because I don’t get into it,” he said. “I don’t have a side. If I did, I’m relatively independent. I see things both ways. But there’s just drama with it. So there’s not really anything for me to vote for.”

On the other hand, he said he felt voting is important.

“I would say it is important to vote but then I did say I don’t vote myself. So it is important, but again, I haven’t done it,” he said.

Amherst professor Sarat said there’s a big problem, not just in West Virginia, but across the country.

“Many of the students that I teach are caught between hope and resignation,” he said. “And that resignation is young people have reason to be resigned and disillusioned. How do you move a group of people, a community, a society, a university from one place to the next? And what’s missing, between resignation and hope, is a commitment to democracy.”

Data shows that nearly a third of youth believe democracy is no longer viable in the U.S., according to a 2023 YouGov study.

The stark contrast between this generation and previous generations’ commitment to democracy is alarming for people like Sarat.

“Why are people my age more attached to democracy?” he said. “In part, because we grew up at a time when democracy was really threatened by fascism and communism. Young people have grown up at a time when they could take democracy for granted with all of its flaws.”

Sarat thinks things can get better. There were record turnouts of young voters last election.

“A conversation about democracy, which was dormant before Donald Trump came down the elevator, is now very much part of the American conversation,” he said. “Maybe that will, overtime, reconnect people to why democracy is important, why participation is important, why it’s important to get out there and get your hands dirty to make political change.”

Published in conjunction with West Virginia Public Broadcasting Logo