Midterm Elections: Youth Make a Difference

The youth vote had a big impact on last month’s elections, turning out where it counted to shape the balance of power in Washington and abortion rights. The youth turnout in the midterm elections continued a 25-year trend of steadily rising youth voting, which has helped to increase overall turnout during this period.

CIRCLE, a center at Tufts University, estimates midterm turnout for people between ages 18-29 at 27%, compared to overall turnout of 46.5%. While this is slightly lower than the turnout in 2018, it continues an upward trend since 1994. In general elections, youth turnout has averaged much higher rates, peaking at 50% in 2020.

More important, the youth vote was higher this year where it mattered, in states that had controversial issues like abortion on the ballot or close races that might change the direction of a state. CIRCLE estimates youth turnout in seven key states (FL, GA, MI, NC, NH, NV, OH, PA, WI) at 31%. Record youth turnout, helped defeat measures regarding abortion, with abortion being the prime motivator for youth turnout.

The youth vote was also key in moderating the “red wave” of Republican victories, skewing 63-35% for Democrats over Republicans in Congressional races, according to CIRCLE. This was particularly important in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, where the youth turnout was large and Democratic victories narrow.

While policies like mail voting and same-day registration encourage youth turnout, this year’s numbers show that young people will vote despite new voter restrictions, as will the general population. Wisconsin, Georgia, Florida and Michigan, are among the 19 states with new voter requirements, yet turnout was still high, though generally not as high as in states without such restrictions.

The lesson for policy-makers seeking higher voter turnout is to make registration and voting easy and, wherever possible, show that it matters. Both CIRCLE and the Brennan Center for Justice have shown that policies like online voter registration, automatic voter registration, and pre-registration are correlated with higher voter participation, and this is particularly true for young people. In 2020 turnout in states with more voter-friendly policies was 53%, compared to 43% in states without these policies, according to CIRCLE.

As for helping people see that voting matters, civic education on the importance of elections, along with voter education on ballot measures, can add to public interest, particularly in local elections that often see lower turnout.

And despite fears about declining civic engagement, last month’s election turnout reflected another in a string of increases over the past two decades. Overall voter turnout has increased since 1996, with turnout in presidential years rising from 51.7% in 1996 to 66.6% in 2020, the highest since 1900, when it was 73.7% for an electorate that was quite different. For midterm elections, overall turnout has increased from 38.1 in 1998 to 46.5 in 2022, which is roughly average for the past century.

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