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YESI Spotlight: Youth Electoral Impact in Minnesota

Minnesota has had the strongest youth participation in the country in recent elections, and the youth vote could decide several House races in 2020.

According to CIRCLE’s Youth Electoral Significance Index (YESI), Minnesota is one of the states where young people could have a decisive impact on 2020 elections. In recent elections, including 2016 and 2018, Minnesota boasted one of the highest youth turnout rates of any state in the country. Because of their high participation, young people in Minnesota make up a crucial part of the electorate and could shape several races this November. Minnesota ranks #8 on our YESI ranking of states where youth have the highest potential to influence the presidential race, and the Minnesota 7th Congressional District ranks #7 in our YESI ranking of districts. Two other Congressional Districts in the state—the Minnesota’s 1st and Minnesota 2nd—also rank in the top 50.

A closer look at the factors behind the high potential for youth impact in Minnesota’s elections reveals several reasons the state ranks so highly in our Youth Electoral Significance Index.

There are more than 800,000 young people in the state, making up 16% of the citizen population—a relatively high proportion. Their votes can make a difference, especially in close elections. In 2016, young voters cast approximately 466,000 votes in Minnesota, which was more than 10 times the margin of victory in the state’s presidential race (Sec. Hillary Clinton won by just over 44,000 votes). Additionally, Minnesota has 19 “pivot counties” where President Obama won in 2012 and President Trump won in 2016, showing that elections there can be competitive. The race for the Minnesota 7th Congressional seat is widely regarded as a toss-up.

One reason young Minnesotans influence elections is because participation is high: Minnesota had the highest youth turnout of any state in both 2016 (57%) and 2018 (44%). The state offers same-day voter registration and online voter registration, which can make it easier for young people to participate in elections and lead to increased turnout. Election administration in the state tends to be inclusive of young people. Minnesota law allows youth to be poll workers once they turn 16, and for many years, Minneapolis has had a successful student election judge program. These initiatives are especially timely given the COVID-19 pandemic. Short-staffed election sites are a perennial problem, but the fact that older citizens who tend to work the polls are also the most vulnerable to COVID-19 has made recruiting young poll workers vital.

That said, the COVID-19 pandemic has also created potential challenges to electoral participation. There have been legal challenges to the proposed deadlines for accepting absentee ballots. If the deadline is shortened, it could affect young voters like college students who are trying to vote from out-of-state.

Youth of Color Could be Key

While Minnesota is not the most diverse state in terms of race/ethnicity, young people of color could still play a pivotal role in the election. Minnesota is home to the largest Somali-American population in the United States and one of the most high-profile Congresswomen in the country, Rep. Ilhan Omar, whose 17-year-old daughter is also a young activist in her own right. The state has also been at the heart of the national protests over racial injustice after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Young people—especially youth of color—have been at the center of that movement, which spread from Minnesota throughout the country. Our national survey of young people found that 27% of youth said they had attended a protest in 2020—up from 5% in 2016.

Social activism can be linked to voting; in 2018, we found that young people who were a part of the anti-gun violence movement fueled the historic youth turnout in the midterm elections. In 2020, George Floyd’s brother, Terrance Floyd, explicitly called on protestors to vote, and there are some signs that they have listened. Our latest analysis of youth voter registration data found that, five weeks before the election, youth voter registration (ages 18-24) in Minnesota was already 22% higher than in November 2016. Among youth who are newly eligible to vote (ages 18-19), it was 38% higher.

While Black Minnesotans are the largest community of color in the state, other communities of color could also be influential in 2020. Our recent analysis on the potential impact of rural youth highlighted the Minnesota 7th, which is home to four Native American tribes with a total estimated population of 22,000 people. While Indigenous communities face numerous barriers to voting that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, if campaigns and other stakeholders reach out to indigenous youth to encourage, register, and mobilize them, their votes can have an impact.


Youth in Minnesota have been going to the streets and to the polls—both as voters and as poll workers! Their voices in this election can carry a lot of power. As they are everywhere around the country, young people are a crucial part of the Minnesota electorate and they should not be ignored. It is up to elected officials, community leaders, educators, and local organizations to capitalize on their momentum and support their participation, both to engage new voters and to ensure that those already engaged in civic and political action stay engaged for years to come. They have to ensure that this momentum continues, not only to keep engaging youth, but to ensure that those already engaged continue practicing habits of civic engagement.


Authors: Carolina Olea Lezama, Alberto Medina, Alison Cohen