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Growing Voters: A Profile of the Youngest Eligible Voters in 2020

Like their slightly older peers, youth ages 18-21 are active and engaged in civic life. Are the institutions that help them develop as voters doing their part?

More than 15 million people have turned 18 since the last presidential election, and these youngest eligible voters form a diverse, active, and potentially decisive voting bloc in the 2020 elections. Some cast ballots in 2018, contributing to the highest youth voter turnout we’ve ever seen in a midterm election. Some participated in the youth-led anti-gun violence movement that drove youth engagement in that election even if they were then too young to vote themselves. Some are now leading protests and demonstrations against racial injustice and making it one of the defining issues of the 2020 election cycle.

While a lot of youth voting research (including our own) usually studies young people ages 18-29 or 18-34, it is important to focus on these youngest eligible voters who are new to elections at a time when processes for how to register and cast a ballot are in flux. We have used data from our exclusive pre-election youth poll to take a broader look at the engagement of young people aged 18-21 and whether key civic institutions are supporting “growing voters.” Some of our major findings include:

  • They are interested and politically active. More than three quarters say they’re paying attention to the election and think it will have an impact in their communities. More than four-in-five of them believe in the power of youth to create social change.
  • 28% say they have recently participated in a march or demonstration, but that also differs by race and gender. Young women are much more likely to have protested (36%) than young men (20%).[1] And youth of color are much more likely to have demonstrated than White youth (38% vs. 22%), with young women of color the most likely to do so.
  • Systems are not doing enough to reach youth with accessible information to register and vote during the pandemic. One-third (34%) said they did not know if their state has online voter registration. Just 25% have voted by mail before, and more than a quarter said they wouldn’t know where to get information about mail-in voting.
  • Young people with no college experience are less likely to be contacted by campaigns and parties and less likely to have information on casting an absentee ballot or to know where to get it, which both reflects and potentially perpetuates inequalities in political participation.

Our initial analysis of this polling data can be found here. The first wave of the CIRCLE/Tisch College 2020 Youth Survey was fielded from May 20 to June 18, 2020. The survey covered adults between the ages of 18 and 29 who will be eligible to vote in the United Stated by the 2020 General Election. The sample was drawn from the Gallup Panel, a probability-based panel that is representative of the U.S. adult population, and from the Dynata Panel, a non-probability panel. A total of 2,232 eligible adults completed the survey, which includes oversamples of 18- to 21-year-olds (N=671), Asian American youth (N=306), Black youth (N=473), Latino youth (N=559) and young Republicans (N=373). Of the total completes, 1,019 were from the Gallup Panel and 1,238 were from the Dynata Panel. Unless stated otherwise, ‘youth’ refers to those ages 18- to 29-years old. The margin of error for the poll, taking into account the design effect from weighting, is +/- 4.1 percentage points. Margins of error for racial and ethnic subgroups range from +/-8.1 to 11.0 percentage points.

CIRCLE Growing Voters

Released in 2022, the CIRCLE Growing Voters report introduces a new framework to transform how communities and institutions prepare youth for democracy. It includes major recommendations for organizations across sectors to do this work more equitably and effectively.

Diverse Identities and Experiences

According to our analysis of federal Census data, there are 15 million citizens ages 18-21 in the United States. Just over half (54%) are White; 23% are Latino, 14% Black, 4% Asian, and 4% are multiracial. Nearly half (47%) have at least some college experience and 63% are currently enrolled in school; among those, 72% are in college and 28% are still in high school. Nearly half (47%) are employed full- or part-time, and more than 450,000 of them have children. About a quarter (24%) have at least one parent who immigrated to the U.S., and almost 475,000 are themselves first-generation immigrants.

Politically Active, with Young Women and Youth of Color Leading the Way

Like their slightly older peers, young people ages 18-21 are active in social movements, and hold a strong belief that their generation can achieve change. Three-quarters of youth (74%) say they are paying some or a lot of attention to the 2020 election, and 76% believe it will have an impact on their community. In addition, 77% of youth say the COVID-19 pandemic has helped them realize that political leaders’ decisions impact their daily life. More than four-in-five young people (83%) say they believe that youth can effect change. Many of these 18- to 21-year-olds are putting those beliefs into action: 62% consider themselves part of a movement that will vote to express its views. 

That said, there are major differences in civic and political engagement among youth (ages 18-21) by race/ethnicity. Youth of color are much more likely to have advocated for a policy than White youth: 41% vs. 34%. Overall, 28% of young people in that age group say they have participated in a march or demonstration, but 37% of youth of color have done so, compared to just 22% of White youth. There is an even more remarkable difference by gender: 36% of young women have marched or demonstrated, compared to 20% of young men. This tracks with what we found in the 2018 election cycle, when young women—and especially young Black women and Latinas—were more active as voters and participants in social movements than young men.

Are We “Growing Voters” Ready to Participate During a Pandemic?

While youth engagement and activism are on the rise, we should not assume this will automatically translate to high voter turnout. When it comes to formal election participation the youngest eligible voters have historically trailed their slightly older peers. To address this gap,  we have proposed a paradigm shift from mobilizing voters a few months before an election, to long-term investment in “growing voters” that includes talking and teaching about elections and voting years before youth turn 18. (For more on what can be done to engage youth not yet eligible to vote, see a list here and resources here.)

More immediately, however, our survey raises questions about whether youth will be ready to vote this November given that they may be prevented or discouraged from registering to vote and/or casting a ballot in person because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Stakeholders must be intentional in encouraging and facilitating youth voting despite these challenges. Our poll highlights current and potential needs and points to what some of these institutions can do now and in the future. 

Election Administration

Local election administrators and policymakers can do a lot to prepare and support young voters—especially those newly eligible to participate in elections. We asked young people whether online voter registration was available in their state. More than a third of youth, ages 18-21, (36%) said they did not know—compared to 29% of youth ages 22-29. Moreover, just a quarter of youth (ages 18-21) have experience voting by mail, and more than a quarter (27%) said that they don’t know where to find information about mail-in voting.

Our poll also reveals major regional differences in young people’s experience with voting by mail (VBM), which in turn reflect geographical differences in VBM’s prevalence across the United States. In Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington—as well as in several populous California counties—voting by mail is the default method of electoral participation. Not surprisingly, 46% of young people from Western states in our poll say they have voted by mail before, compared to 20% of youth from the rest of the country. The lowest rate is in the South, where just 16% of youth in our poll say they have had access to and experience with voting by mail. Given the racial/ethnic composition of the electorate in Southern states and in different regions of the country, this highlights a potential challenge to equitable democratic participation this November, and should serve as a call to action for stakeholders to ensure that youth in every part of the country have information about mail-in voting.

Educational Institutions

One way young people can and should learn about the voting process is in schools and colleges, which reach millions of youth in every state and community. Educators are a key constituency in efforts to Grow Voters, but nearly half of youth in our poll (46%) say they did not learn about where and how to register to vote in high school or do not remember if they did. 

Colleges seem to be doing slightly better at teaching and encouraging students to vote: 63% of 18- to 21-year olds who have at least some experience with college said they learned about voter registration in college, and 66% said that their college professors had encouraged them to vote. Notably, that’s higher than among 22- to 29-year-olds, indicating that colleges may have recently emphasized engaging students to vote. (Our colleagues at the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education have extensive research and resources on the role of higher education institutions in promoting voter education and engagement.)

This dynamic underscores and likely contributes to some of the disparities in voter education and engagement by educational attainment (which we often use as a proxy for family income) that we see elsewhere in our poll. For example, youth who have at least some college experience are 20 percentage points more likely to have seen information about how to vote by mail or absentee ballot (77% to 57%) and to know where to go to get information about casting a mail-in ballot (71% to 51%).

It’s also important to consider that colleges reach a less diverse population of young people than K-12 schools, which can also contribute to broader inequities. This fall, high schools, trade schools, and other educational institutions (beyond higher education) which serve youth must take seriously their roles in explicitly communicating local registration and voting procedures to students and encouraging them to vote.

News Media

Our poll indicates that youth are avid consumers and creators of media. Nearly three in four youth aged 18-21 (72%) reported having read or watched news about their local area (i.e. neighborhood, town, city, region, state) at least occasionally in the week before they took the survey. Additionally 71% said they have fact-checked information about the coronavirus.

Our poll also reveals that youth need information about the voting process, and media outlets have the ability—and, we would argue, the responsibility— to share key information with young people about how and where to register and to cast a ballot.  Importantly, media can also influence civic culture with what they choose to cover (or not) about young people’s political engagement. This storytelling can happen through a range of platforms, as young people are hearing about the election on news websites, on social media, and through personal networks.

Because young people understand the cultural power of media—and because they sometimes perceive that the media does not cover their issues and communities—many young people are creating their own media as well. Almost 41% of 18- to-21-year-olds said that they have at least occasionally created media or other content to post online about politics, current events, or a social/political issue they care about, including 21% who said they do so “often” or “fairly often”. 

Political Campaigns and Parties

In the United States, political campaigns and political parties also play a role in providing opportunities for youth to learn, lead, and recruit other young people. In fact, according to our poll, young people ages 18-21 have volunteered for a political campaign at a higher rate (20% vs. 14%) than those aged 22-29.

Campaigns and parties also do a great deal of outreach during campaigns, which is important for the newest potential voters, but it misses many young people precisely because they are not already on voter rolls or belong to institutions where much campaign outreach takes place. For example, youth aged 18-21 are contacted at a lower rate (by 20 percentage points) if they have no college experience (and less than those ages 22-29 with no college experience). Interestingly, our poll also finds that young men and women are also being contacted at different rates: 51% of young women have been contacted by a campaign, party, or organization supporting a candidate at least once this election cycle, compared to 43% of young men. 

In this time of acute crisis and important national conversations, we especially need our civic institutions to be just as proactive in tapping into young people’s energy for social change  and channeling it into accessible electoral engagement. What happens in November will be an indicator of the success of these efforts and institutions.

[1] The survey item that we used for gender identity asked respondents to select all that apply from man, woman, transgender, and gender non-conforming. The sample sizes for the latter two answers were too small to report out on reliably. For the purpose of this analysis, those respondents who identify as trans men or trans women were added to the men and women categories.

Authors: Abby Kiesa, Noorya Hayat, Peter de Guzman, Sarah Andes