2018 Youth Voter Turnout Increased in Every State
Youth voting increased across the country in 2018, and a new CIRCLE analysis of state voter file shows that, in every single state for which data is available, the voter turnout of eligible young voters (ages 18-29) was higher in 2018 than in 2014, often by a significant amount.
- Compared to 2014, youth voter turnout increased in every single state. In 40 of the 42 states, youth turnout increased by at least 7 percentage points, and in 31 of them it increased by double digits.
- Minnesota, Montana, and Colorado led the nation in 2018 youth voting, each with a turnout rate above 40%. Utah, New York, and Arkansas had the lowest rates, although they still registered notable increases compared to 2014.
- California, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, and Virginia form a select group of states that registered youth turnout increases of more than 20 percentage points.
- In the majority of all states we examined (32 out of 42), the increase in youth turnout exceeded the increase in turnout among the general (all ages) electorate.
Youth turnout can differ dramatically from state to state, and can either follow or run counter to national trends. State turnout can be affected by competitive statewide races (or the cumulative effect of more than one close election), facilitative state election policies, a state’s civic culture, the presence of strong youth civic engagement infrastructure (that can, for example activate deliberate outreach on ballot measures), and other factors. Below, we shine a spotlight on several states where close races, on-the-ground engagement efforts, and other factors led to high or significantly increased youth turnout:
Not only did youth turnout rise by 16 percentage points in Arizona—a state that received national attention due to its highly competitive Senate race—but the total share of votes cast by youth nearly doubled (from just 6.3% in 2014 to 11.5% in 2018), demonstrating an increase in young people’s influence on the election. After Republican incumbent Jeff Flake announced that he would not seek reelection in 2018, Democrats viewed this historically red state as a possible pickup, especially in light of Arizona’s rising Hispanic population and Hillary Clinton’s relatively strong showing in 2016. Inspire US, a student-driven, nonpartisan nonprofit focused on registering youth to vote in high schools has had a multi-year presence in Arizona. This type of work, which has historically trailed efforts focused on college students, is critical in reaching youth early, building infrastructure in the voter engagement sector, and institutionalizing teaching about elections and voting.
Before the election, CIRCLE’s Youth Electoral Significance (YESI) rated Arizona 9th among the top states where youth had the potential for especially high influence in a Senate race. Ultimately, in a race that wasn’t called until days after election night, Democratic Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema just edged out her House colleague, Republican Martha McSally, by just 2.4 percentage points, becoming the first Democrat Arizona sent to the Senate since 1988. A competitive race, combined with intentional outreach to younger voters, can increase turnout and affect electoral outcomes.
Despite there being no competitive gubernatorial or Senate races in California, young people still went to the polls in significant numbers and increased their turnout rate by 20 percentage points: from 10% in 2014 to 30% in 2018. Their surge in participation likely helped Democrats flip seven seats in California en route to taking over control of the U.S. House of Representatives; exit polls found that 7 in 10 young Californians voted for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom over his Republican opponent John Cox, which suggests a level of support (mirroring young voters’ 35-point preference for Democratic House candidates nationally) that likely aided downballot Democrats in the state.
Indeed, in some closely watched swing districts previously held by Republicans, Democratic challengers emerged with key victories. In California’s 25th Congressional District, Katie Hill—a political novice who ran what Vice News described as “the most millennial campaign ever”—edged out incumbent GOP Rep. Steve Knight. In CA-10, Democrat Josh Harder defeated Republican incumbent Jeff Denham by just 4 percentage points. In two other extremely close races that weren’t decided until weeks after Election Day, T.J. Cox flipped Republican David Valadao’s seat in CA-21, and Gil Cisneros edged out Young Kim in CA-39.
Some of California’s electoral laws and administrative practices may deserve credit for facilitating youth voting. For example, the state allows 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote. In addition, California’s passed the New Motor Voter Act in 2015, which empowered the Department of Motor Vehicles to send information about its voting-eligible customers to the Secretary of State, which would automatically register them to vote. The Public Policy Institute of California estimated that this law added about two million new voters to the rolls in the first year after passage.
In Georgia, youth voter turnout more than doubled between 2014 and 2018, from 13% to 33%, representing a 20 percentage-point increase. The state’s surprisingly close gubernatorial race, in which Democrat Stacey Abrams nearly upset Republican Brian Kemp, likely led to greater investment in youth voter engagement and helped motivate young people—especially young people of color—to head to the polls. In our post-election analysis, we found that counties with high proportions of youth voted for Abrams by 7 percentage points above the state average, and counties with high percentages of youth AND people of color voted for Abrams by 22 points above the average. As young people increased their turnout at a greater rate than the general population in Georgia, it is evident that young voters helped Abrams turn a traditionally deep-red state into a gubernatorial battleground.
CIRCLE’s 2018 Youth Electoral Significance Index (YESI), which measured the states in which young voters had the highest potential to swing an election, ranked Maine 2nd for its gubernatorial race and 10th for its Senate race. Youth voter turnout in the state rose by 5.8 percentage points between 2014 and 2018, a more modest increase than in some other states, but significant given that its 2014 youth voter turnout rate was already relatively high (30.5%), and that the increase to 36.4% in 2018 puts Maine among the states with the highest youth voter turnout rates in the country. Additionally, the youth share of the vote in Maine (the percentage of all votes that were cast by young people) was 10.4% in 2018, which is high for a midterm election.
The relatively high levels of youth voting in Maine may be due in part to how the state approaches election administration. For instance, Maine allows 17 year olds to preregister to vote, creating an on-ramp to participate in the electoral process. Additionally, ranked-choice voting was approved by Mainers in 2016 and utilized for the first time in 2018. In Maine’s 2nd Congressional District Democratic candidate Jared Golden edged out Republican Bruce Poliquin, 50.5% to 49.5%, after independent voters’ second- and third- choice votes were added to either candidate. This race served as an example of how the ranked-choice system may make citizens feel like their vote is never “wasted” and that their choice will always impact the election results. Young people may be especially encouraged to participate when they feel certain that their vote matters.
In Montana, youth turnout more than doubled—from 17.6% in 2014 to 42.1% in 2018—as young people turned out in droves to carry incumbent Democratic Senator Jon Tester to a close victory. Before the midterms, CIRCLE had ranked the Montana Senate race #4 in our Youth Electoral Significance Index (YESI), indicating that it was an election in which young people had the potential to make an outsize impact. In the same post-election analysis in which we looked at the county-by-county vote in Georgia, we also found that Tester won 52% of the vote in counties with a high proportion of youth compared to just 32% in counties where young people made up a lower percentage of the population. Grassroots advocacy may have also played a role in the surge of young voters, as organizations like Forward Montana helped to elevate young voters’ need for easy-access polling places through public testimony and other citizen-led actions. There was a large increase in turnout in the precinct that moved to an on-campus voting location.
Youth turnout skyrocketed in Nevada, a state which saw challenger Jacky Rosen unseat incumbent Republican Dean Heller for one of the few Senate seats that flipped from a Republican to a Democrat this cycle. Historically, Nevada has not had high youth turnout; for instance, just 1% of young Nevadans participated in the state’s 2012 Republican caucus, and we observed a large decline in the number of registered youth in Nevada ahead of the 2016 election. In addition, we estimate that just 9% of youth in Nevada voted in 2014, representing about 34,000 votes.
In 2018, turnout among young voters rose by 20 percentage points to 29%. Correspondingly, the number of votes cast by young people increased from about 34,000 in 2014 to 120,000 in 2018. According to exit polls, Rosen carried the 18-29 age bracket by over a 2-to-1 margin, which indicates that the rise in youth voters alone provided her entire 50,000 vote margin of victory. While turnout did increase for all age groups, the turnout rate of young people increased by a far greater amount than the general population. There was a 77% increase in the total number of votes cast (by all age groups) in Nevada (555,000 in 2014 to 976,000 in 2018), but for youth, the increase was 253%. The youth share of the vote (meaning that the percentage of all votes cast by young people) doubled, from about 6% in 2014 to 12% in 2018.
In Tennessee, youth voter turnout more than doubled between 2014 to 2018: from 9.2% to 22.3%. Anticipation for a surge of youth voters in this state rose in the lead-up to the election after pop superstar Taylor Swift’s endorsement of Democratic Senate candidate Phil Bredesen and explicit social media call for voter registration. Swift penned an open letter on her Instagram account and linked to Vote.org, which reported thousands of new voter registrations in Tennessee in the days after her social media post. Given her popularity among youth and her previous reluctance to share her political views, Swift’s efforts drew a lot of attention and may have contributed to the 13 percentage point youth turnout increase in her home state of Tennessee.
That said, the overall turnout increase in the state was even larger than the increase among youth, 15.4%, which may suggest that Tennessee youth were undermobilized in spite of social media appeals from a major celebrity. As discussed previously, other dynamics were at play in Tennessee, a solidly “red” state where Republican candidate Marsha Blackburn was favored to win, which may have led to less outreach to young voters.
After just 8.2% of Texas youth turned out to vote in 2014—the lowest 2014 turnout rate among these 17 states—young people boosted their 2018 turnout rate to 25.8%. In Texas’ lone U.S. Senate race, challenger Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D) nearly upset incumbent Senator Ted Cruz (R), in part due to extensive youth support at the polls. According to a CIRCLE post-election analysis, O’Rourke earned his greatest support in counties with high proportions of young people—especially Latino youth. O’Rourke’s narrow margin of defeat (3 percentage points) brings into sharp relief the fact the increase in youth turnout merely matched the increase among the general Texas electorate: both went up by about 17 percentage points. With O’Rourke now running for president, Texas figures to be a closely watched state in 2020, and the continued outreach to and influence of youth in the state may play a prominent role.
The youth turnout rate nearly doubled in West Virginia, though it failed to exceed the uptick in the overall (all ages) electorate’s voting rate, indicating that there was a high increase in voter participation across the board in the state. CIRCLE’s YESI rated West Virginia 7th among Senate races where young people had the potential to influence the outcome, in part because Democratic incumbent Joe Manchin was expected to face a tough challenge in a deep-red state which Donald Trump won in 2016 by a margin of 42 points. Manchin ended up winning reelection by less than 4 percentage points (under 20,000 votes); it’s likely that young voters had a significant impact on the outcome. West Virginia allows automatic voter registration and pre-registration for 17-year-olds, which may have facilitated youth participation.
Methods and Data Sources
Data available about young voters has increased a great deal over the past five years, but much takes months to update after an election. One significant advance is the presence of vendors who aggregate state voter file data from public sources into a national voter file (e.g. Catalist, which we use). Starting in 2012, CIRCLE began using a national voter file to calculate state-by-state, district-by-district and county-by-county youth voter turnout estimates for presidential and midterm elections. This data gets updated as each state fully updates their electronic files and that can take months. While we still use the Census Current Population Survey (CPS) Voting Supplement for some subgroup analysis and to view long-term trends, which voter files do not allow, we have used voter file data in our YESI, RAYSE Index (county data) and ongoing analyses as much as possible.
CIRCLE uses a number of sources to estimate various turnout figures. For youth turnout, CIRCLE uses national aggregated voter file from Catalist, LLC. to get data on the number of votes cast by people who are ages 18-29 on the Election Day. We use data provided by the United States Election Project at University of Florida to get data on total number of ballots cast in 2014 and 2018 General Election. We derive citizen population estimates from the American Community Survey 1-year state estimate. As in any turnout calculation method, a number of factors can result in slight variations in the turnout estimate.