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State-by-State 2020 Youth Voter Turnout: The South

Voter turnout across the South a region where voting by mail was generally not as easy, ranged from 56% in Virginia to 34% in Oklahoma.

As 2020 voter file data becomes available, CIRCLE is examining state-by-state youth voter turnout. Our first analysis looked at nine states in the West and Southwest. Today we’re releasing estimates of youth voter turnout for 11 states in the South (broadly defined, from Texas, to West Virginia, to Florida). It is important to understand voter turnout at the state level, because laws and policies that can facilitate voting—like automatic and online voter registration, or the ease with which residents can vote by mail—are enacted at the state level and can be implemented much differently across states.

Our key takeaways from youth voting rates in the South include:

  • Youth turnout was lower in Southern states, which generally made voting by mail more difficult than states in the West, where turnout was higher.
  • Youth voter turnout rates were highest in states along the east coast like Virginia (56%), North Carolina (55%), Florida (54%), and Georgia (51%), which were electoral battlegrounds in 2020. 
  • The largest increases in youth turnout between 2016 and 2020 were in Georgia and Tennessee (14 points). At 34%, Oklahoma had the lowest youth voter turnout in the region and of any state for which we have released data so far.

Youth voter turnout in these 11 Southern states ranged from 34% in Oklahoma to 56% in Virginia. By comparison, in the West and Southwest, turnout ranged from 39% in New Mexico to 63% in Colorado. However, the gap in turnout between young people and those over the age of 30 is similar across both regions. So while the voter turnout of young people does lag behind turnout of older voters, it is not further behind in the South. Furthermore, turnout increases from 2016 to 2020 among youth were above the current national average of 7 points for the overall electorate—as estimated by the US Election Project using state-reported data—in many states, including Virginia (9 points), Florida (10 points), North Carolina (10 points), South Carolina (10 points), Texas (13 points), Georgia (14 points) and Tennessee (14 points). Meaning, youth voter turnout did improve across much of the South, but from a lower starting point than in other parts of the country.

There were several presidential battleground states in this region, especially Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina. Youth turned out at higher rates in these contested states that saw significant amounts of electoral activity compared to states where the presidential race was less competitive, and may have contributed to some of the highest youth turnout rates in the region: 55% in North Carolina, 54% in Florida, and 51% in Georgia. Among these three states, Georgia had the largest turnout increase over 2016, increasing 14 points from 2016—we previously highlighted how young voters were critical in both the 2020 presidential race and the U.S. Senate races in the state.

The Potential Impact of Vote by Mail Policies

One reason why youth voting rates may be relatively low across the South is that states in this region generally made it harder to register to vote and to vote by mail at a time when social distancing was imperative. Voters in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Virginia had the option to request a ballot and vote by mail since before 2020. Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina and West Virginia changed their voting laws in 2020 to permit all voters to request an absentee ballot and vote by mail. However, unlike most states across the West, none of these 11 Southern states automatically sent ballots to all registered individuals, nor applications for absentee ballots. And in Louisiana, Texas, and Tennessee, voters needed a “compelling reason” to request an absentee ballot—and the COVID-19 pandemic did not count as such a reason. Furthermore, most Southern states do not have automatic voter registration, and Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas do not allow people to register to vote online.

Some additional insight on two key states:

In addition to the “traditional” battleground states, there were many eyes on Texas in 2020. The state saw a substantial increase in youth voting: 41% in 2020, compared to 28% in 2016. Turnout increased more among youth than among the entire (all ages) electorate in the state, which went from 51% turnout in 2016 to 60% in 2020, according to the US Elections Project. That said, before Election Day, there were signs that youth turnout could be even higher, since the number of youth who voted early in 2020 exceeded the total number of youth votes in 2016. Even so, Texas’ youth voter turnout ended up being one of the lowest of any state for which we have data. One possible explanation: Texas did not have particularly facilitative election policies during a pandemic: no online voter registration, and COVID-19 was not a valid excuse for requesting an absentee ballot. This may suggest that, despite the strong investment and attention that comes with being an electorally competitive state, barriers to voting due to state laws and election administration can still hinder youth participation.  

Virginia had the highest youth voter turnout in the region: 56%. It had a similar youth turnout rate, and a similar rate of increase between 2016 and 2020 (+8 percentage points) as other swing states along the East Coast, like North Carolina. Virginia holds frequent elections: it has statewide off-year elections for offices like state assembly, state senate, governor and attorney general. In both 2016 and 2018, the state was among the top 10 in the country in youth voter turnout. Virginia also has a higher median income than the states in the region (11th highest nationwide); by contrast, states on the lower end of the youth turnout spectrum in this region rank very low in terms of median income: Oklahoma (44th), Alabama (46th), Louisiana (47th), Arkansas (49th),  and West Virginia (51st). CIRCLE has long highlighted the connections between economic mobility—or lack thereof—and civic participation

Mississippi was not included in this regional analysis due to a lack of reliable age data on the voter file; Kentucky data was not available at the time of writing.

Explore the interactive map below, which includes the Southern states in this analysis and the states from our other releases.