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The Youth Electorate Has the Potential to Decide Elections in Pennsylvania

In recent elections, young people's participation in this perennially competitive state has been strong, and could be decisive in 2022 if youth are supported.

Lead Author: Ruby Belle BoothElections Coordinator
Contributors: Kelly Siegel-Stechler, Alberto Medina


Pennsylvania was one of the decisive states in the 2020 election: President Biden prevailed over former President Trump by just 1% of the vote, and young voters played an influential role in the outcome. The youth vote may once again be critical in the 2022 midterm elections, as Pennsylvania ranks in the top 10 of our Youth Electoral Significance Index (YESI) rankings of the Senate (#4) and Governor (#7) races where young people could decisively influence the result this November.

The state’s high ranking stems from the projected competitiveness of its 2022 statewide races, and from young Pennsylvanians’ consistently above-average electoral engagement. Though young people make up a percentage of the state’s population that is on par with the national average, youth voter registration was above-average in 2020: 69%. Turnout among youth in Pennsylvania has followed the upwards trajectory across the country, with historically strong turnout in 2018 and 2020. 

In a perennial electoral battleground like Pennsylvania, young people can have a significant impact on election results. Youth in Pennsylvania supported Biden by a 27-point margin (compared to a near 1 point margin among all voters). This difference meant a net advantage of more than 150,000 youth votes; in 2020, the presidential election was decided by less than 81,000 votes. When Senator Pat Toomey, who is not running for re-election, held onto his seat in 2016, he won by less than 87,000 votes. A difference of a few percentage points in youth participation could prove critical.

Young people of color in Pennsylvania, where close to 25% of the population is nonwhite, may be especially influential. In CIRCLE’s 2020 election-week analysis of county-level data, we found that President Biden received greater support (among all age groups) in Pennsylvania counties with a high proportion of youth compared to counties with lower youth populations: 42% vs. 28%. In counties with more youth of color, President Biden’s vote share was twice as high as counties with a low proportion of youth of color (54% and 28%, respectively).

2022 Youth Electoral Significance Index

Find the updated full rankings and read more about the factors that contribute to high potential for youth electoral impact in each race. You can also access our social media toolkit to post about the YESI rankings and the power of young voters.

Election Laws and Challenges to Growing Voters

In Pennsylvania, young people have been participating in elections at above-average rates in spite of few facilitative voter laws that, if implemented, could further support youth electoral engagement. Of the four policies included in the YESI analysis, Pennsylvania has only enacted one: online voter registration. The state does not have automatic voter registration, pre-registration, or same day registration, which our research has found can correlate with increased youth voter participation.

Our summer snapshot of youth voter registration highlights some of the challenges to growing voters in the state and ensuring young people in Pennsylvania can live up to their potential electoral impact. As of  June 2022, there were 7% fewer young people (ages 18-24) registered to vote than at the same point in the previous midterm election cycle. Among newly eligible voters ages 18-19, the picture was bleaker; voter registrations in June 2022 trail the June 2018 pace by 46%.

The large difference between these two age groups may have multiple causes. Pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, which Pennsylvania hasn’t enacted, can be especially critical in supporting the registration of newly eligible voters. In addition, the 2020 election cycle spurred major investment and efforts to register and mobilize young voters, especially in battleground states like Pennsylvania. Many of these young voters registered in 2020 remain on the rolls, but youth who have turned 18 since 2020 did not benefit from that election-year outreach.

January 2022 research from the Civics Center also pointed to a lack of engagement from 18-year-olds in Pennsylvania ahead of the midterms, especially in some of the largest school districts. In Philadelphia and Pittsburgh school districts, which boast the largest student bodies in the state, only 15% of 18-year-olds were registered to vote as of January. Even within a single county, some school districts have 30+ percentage points higher 18-year-old voter registration compared to other districts, highlighting the vast disparities across geographies and communities. 

The Civics Center’s use of school districts as the geography of study highlights the role that high schools can play in growing voters, especially when policies are enacted and equitably implemented to facilitate voter registration in schools. Without engagement from institutions, like schools, political campaigns, and other organizations, young people are unlikely to reach their potential electoral impact in Pennsylvania, especially given how few policies are in place to support their participation. The state’s low registration compared to 2018 serves as a call to action; not enough is being done yet to ensure that every young Pennsylvanian has a voice and knows how to use it in the 2022 midterms

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.