The Youth Vote Could be Decisive in Wisconsin 2022 Midterm Races
Lead Author: Ruby Belle Booth, Elections Coordinator
Contributors: Kelly Siegel-Stechler, Alberto Medina
Wisconsin ranks in the top 5 of CIRCLE’s statewide Youth Electoral Significance Index (YESI) rankings: #5 for its Senate race and #1 for its Governor race. The YESI, which calculates where young people have an especially high likelihood of influencing election results, is based on data on youth population, past voter history, projected electoral competitiveness, and other relevant factors. The tool highlights states like Wisconsin where investment in youth outreach could have a decisive impact this November.
In this spotlight, we dive deeper into some of the Wisconsin data that leads to a high ranking:
- Youth in Wisconsin have had above-average voter engagement in recent elections, which have been highly competitive.
- Wisconsin has strong election laws, like online voter registration and same-day registration, that can help young voters.
- The state’s most populous counties are racially diverse, and a growing Asian American youth population could be influential.
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.
Policies that Help Grow Voters
Wisconsin has embraced several policies that make it easier for all voters, especially young people, to vote. The state has both online voter registration (OVR) and same-day registration (SDR) in place. Our research has found that both of these policies can increase electoral participation among youth: in 2020, youth voter registration was 10 points higher in states with OVR. Same-day voter registration has also been associated with an increase in youth turnout, likely because it provides flexibility for young people who tend to move often which places demands on their registration process.
That said, states having these policies in place is often not enough: our 2020 polling showed that, nationally, 34% of 18- to 29-year-olds didn’t know if their state had OVR. Broad and equitable outreach to all potential voters—especially youth and others who are new to the electorate—is necessary to ensure all young people can access these opportunities for electoral engagement.
Strong Youth Electoral Engagement
Young people in Wisconsin make up 16% of the state’s population, which is below the national average, but the state has some demographic characteristics historically associated with voter participation like high marriage rates and low poverty rates. While exact data by age is not available, youth in the state have had above-average voter registration and turnout rates in recent elections, and their strong preference for Democratic candidates (+23 for President Biden in 2020) can be decisive in close races.
Wisconsin is one of the least racially diverse states in the U.S., but the young population is more diverse and youth of color in the state can be an electoral force. Milwaukee County is the largest and most racially diverse county in the state: its population is 29% Black and 16% Hispanic/Latino. Dane County is the second largest and, after Racine and Kenosha counties, the fourth most diverse according to the 2020 Census Diversity Index. Because Dane County is home to the University of Wisconsin-Madison it also has an especially large youth population: an above-average 24% of voting age-residents in the county are ages 18-29. The county is also the fastest growing in the state, with its population expanding by 15% between 2010 and 2020. Throughout the state, counties with larger populations of youth of color were more likely to support President Biden in the 2020 election by 16 percentage points, highlighting the influence of these diverse counties and other counties with large proportions of youth of color.
Young Asian Americans Turn Out Despite Lack of Contact
Even small communities can have a large electoral impact if they are engaged. According to the 2020 decennial Census, the Asian American population in Wisconsin makes up just 3% of the state’s total population. However, according to the 2020 5-Year American Community Survey, more than half (51.5%) of that Asian population in Wisconsin is under 30 years old, including people who are not yet old enough to vote. The populous and diverse Dane and Milwaukee counties both have especially high proportions of young Asians. In Milwaukee County, 52% of Asian Americans are under 30 years old, and in Dane County 54%. These counties are also experiencing high rates of Asian American population growth (55.4% increase in Dane County and 43.7% increase in Milwaukee County).
The large and growing proportion of young Asian Americans in the state may have significant electoral potential, especially given this population’s growing electoral engagement: In 2020, Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander youth had the highest increase in voter turnout of any racial/ethnic group. That rising turnout among Asian American youth has occurred despite these communities being largely overlooked in electoral outreach. According to our 2020 analysis, fewer Asian American youth were contacted by either President Biden’s or former President Donald Trump’s campaigns, compared to white, Latino, and Black youth. Community organizations were also less likely to contact them. If political parties, campaigns, and civic organizations in Wisconsin close these outreach gaps, they could further encourage and facilitate the participation of young Asian Americans in the 2022 midterms.
Competitive Races Increase Potential for Youth Influence
The 2022 Senate and Governor races in Wisconsin are currently rated as toss-ups, and recent elections in the state have been highly competitive. Governor Tony Evers, who is running for re-election, won the governorship in 2018 gubernatorial by just 1.1 percentage points, and the last two presidential elections in Wisconsin have been decided by less than 1 percentage point. In 2020 the race was decided by just over 20,000 votes; young people cast hundreds of thousands of votes and favored President Biden by 23 points. However, young people preferred Hillary Clinton by only 4 percentage points, which underscores that neither party should take young voters for granted.
This data showing the discrepancies between past democratic presidential candidates highlights the complex ways in which young people are motivated to vote and the opportunity that both sides of the aisle have in reaching young people. Heading into the 2022 midterms, an array of issues could impact young people’s turnout, including abortion, which has taken a center stage in the statewide elections in Wisconsin this fall. Abortion has the potential to get young people of all ideologies to the ballot box. Yet, given the narrow margins of victory in both 2016 and 2020, the possibility of high turnout for young people engaged around issues is not something to take for granted, particularly as it could prove consequential.
The high registration and turnout rates of Wisconsin’s young voters show that they are engaged and paying attention. Yet, young voters benefit from outreach and support to get them to the polls. Clear information about voting policies can help to make voting more accessible to all young people, and outreach from campaigns and organizations can facilitate this and contribute to building sustainable youth political power. Politicians, government officials, and campaigns will have to prioritize young people as constituents and voters while providing young people with the information they need to vote if they wish to harness the power of this youth vote.
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.