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Inequities by Education and Differences by Gender Shape White Youth Civic Engagement

White youth are not a monolithic group, and young white people without college experience may lack some information and support needed to vote.

Authors: Peter de Guzman, Alberto Medina
Contributors: Katie Hilton, Abby Kiesa

At a Glance: Main Findings

Education Affects Voting Method

More than a third of white youth with college experience voted by mailing in their ballot in 2022, compared to just 22% of those who have not attended college.

No College = Less Contact

White youth were less likely to be contacted by community organizations than youth of color, and white youth without college experience received much less outreach from parties.

Priorities: Economy and Abortion

White youth were much more likely than youth of color to prioritize inflation and abortion in the 2022 election, and less likely to prioritize other issues, notably racism.

Because of persistent racial inequities in voter turnout, white youth have historically voted at a higher rate than young people of color—and did so again in 2022. However, that does not mean that white youth do not experience, to some degree, the barriers to voting and civic participation that often hinder their peers of other races/ethnicities. Moreover, white youth are not a monolithic group; in particular, there can be major differences by educational attainment that prevent some young people from having full and equal access and support for electoral participation. 

Our analysis of white youth based on CIRCLE’s 2022 post-election survey highlights some of these issues. For this analysis, we include “Hispanic whites” and others who self-identified as white alongside another ethnicity in our survey.

White Youth Prefer In-Person Voting, Some Lack Information 

CIRCLE estimates that 29% of white youth voted in the 2022 midterm election, the highest youth turnout rate of any racial/ethnic group for which we have data. Nearly half (45%) of white youth who reported voting in 2022 said they voted in person on Election Day, about a third (33%) reported voting by mail, 16% said they voted early in person, and 6% by dropping off their absentee ballots.   

There was a major difference in voting method between white youth with and without college experience. More than a third (35%) of white youth, ages 22-29, with college experience said they voted by mail, compared to just under 1 in 5 (22%) white youth without college experience. (When reporting on college experience, we use the 22-29 age range to account for some of the youngest eligible voters who may not have yet pursued higher education but may do so in the future.)

White youth also reported some of the same barriers to voting as their peers of other races/ethnicities. About one in four (22%) of white youth who did not vote in 2022 said it was because they did not have enough information–higher than the share of youth of color who said the same. 

These findings underscore that young white potential voters may also benefit from additional information and outreach about elections, including about mail-in voting. They may also underscore that policies and practices related to facilitating mail-in voting may not be as helpful to engaging a critical segment of youth without college experience who are already less likely to vote. 

White Youth Less Likely to Be Contacted by Organizations

Some of the lack of information reported by youth may be due to a lack of contact from youth groups and other local organizations that often play a key role in engaging young potential voters. 

While white youth were about as likely as other young people to be contacted by the Democratic Party (38%) or the Republican Party (34%) ahead of the 2022 midterms, they were significantly less likely than youth of color to report being contacted by a youth organization (11% vs. 20%) or by a community organization (26% vs. 39%). Previous CIRCLE research has highlighted that these organizations can play a key role in reaching young people of color and other youth who may be neglected by major political parties and organizations. But it appears there is potential for these groups to improve their outreach to white youth, especially those without college experience. 

There is a major gap between the electoral outreach experienced by white youth in college, or with college degrees, and those without college experience. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of white youth, ages 22-29, with at least some college experience reported being contacted by any campaign or organization about the 2022 midterms, compared to just 39% of youth without college experience. The difference is especially acute when it comes to contact from political parties: 46% of white youth with college experience said they heard from the Democratic Party, while only half as many youth without college experience (23%) reported such contact—with similar numbers for contact from the Republican Party.

For some white youth, their personal networks or their attention to news may slightly make up for the relative lack of outreach from some organizations. White youth were about 10 points more likely than youth of color to say they saw information about politics and issues in 2022 from friends or roommates (50% vs. 40%), from family members (60% vs. 51%), and from websites (47% vs. 37%). While these differences point at inequities in youth of color’s access to information and support for electoral participation, they also highlight how young people can find different pathways to becoming informed about and engaged in elections. 

White Youth Are Engaged on Issues and Taking Action 

Despite the lack of outreach from some types of organizations, many white youth feel ready and willing to participate in politics and civic life. In our survey, 65% said they have a good understanding of the issues facing the country and 43% said they feel well-qualified to participate in politics–in both cases, about 10 points higher than youth of color. 

White youth are putting that belief in their power and efficacy into action. White youth were significantly more likely than youth of color to report signing a petition or joining a boycott (36%) or following a candidate or campaign on social media (28%). Notably, they were about as likely as youth of color to participate in a protest or demonstration. Here again there are major differences by educational attainment, with white youth (ages 22-29) without college experience generally less likely to report having taken civic actions than their peers with college experience. 

There were also differences among white youth by gender. Young white women were significantly more likely to report engaging in protest than young white men (19% vs. 12%), as well as more likely to report having signed a petition or joined a boycott than young white men (39% vs 31%). This follows a trend, highlighted in previous CIRCLE research, of young women leading the way on civic and political engagement

Gender differences were also prevalent in white youth’s issue priorities. Overall, 44% of white youth chose inflation and gas prices as one of their top three issue priorities after the 2022 election and 33% chose abortion, making those the top two issues among white youth–as well as among youth overall. In both cases, white youth were the most likely, compared to young people of other races/ethnicities, to prioritize those issues; by contrast, white youth were less likely than Black and Latino youth to prioritize gun violence prevention and racism. 

On the abortion issue there was a major gender split, with 45% of young white women selecting it as a top issue, compared to just 18% of young white men. 

While in some ways white youth do not face some of the same historical disadvantages of youth of color, which is partially reflected in their higher youth voter turnout rates, there is still a lot of room for improvement in reaching and engaging this critical portion of the electorate. Understanding the diversity within a group like white youth, and especially the challenges and barriers faced by young people without college experience, is key to supporting their participation. The CIRCLE Growing Voters framework, which includes recommendations for engaging young people outside of higher education and for creating diverse pathways to youth participation, can help inform more authentic outreach that meets young people where they are and supports their engagement.

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.

About the Survey: The survey was developed by CIRCLE at Tufts University, and the polling firm Ipsos collected the data from their nationally representative panel of respondents and a sample of people recruited for this survey between November 9 and November 30, 2022. The study involved an online surveyed a total of 2,018 self-reported U.S. citizens ages 18 to 29 in the United States. Unless mentioned otherwise, data are for all 18- to 29-year-olds in our sample. The margin of error for the entire sample is +/- 2.2 percentage points; subsamples may have higher margins of error.