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Early Estimate: 25% of Youth Voted in the 2021 Virginia Election

Youth voter turnout was lower than in 2017 and highlights the need for continued efforts to reach and engage all young people.

We estimate that youth voter turnout (ages 18-29) in Virginia was 25% in yesterday’s statewide elections for governor and state legislature, matching the level of youth electoral participation in the state’s 2013 gubernatorial contest but lower than in 2017.

Our exclusive early estimate is based on our calculations using population data, votes cast, and the youth share of the vote from the National Election Pool exit polls by Edison Research, which may be adjusted in the coming days. Based on this immediately available data from a statewide survey with a relatively small subsample of young people, our youth voter turnout estimate of 25% has a +/- 3.6 margin of error. We will be able to provide a more accurate in-depth analysis of youth participation when voter file data becomes available in early 2022.

Young people were a critical part of the Democratic candidate for governor, Terry McAuliffe’s, electoral coalition. Voters ages 18-29 were the only age group that preferred McAuliffe, 53% to 46%, while voters in the 30-44 age group and older backed the Republican candidate, Glenn Youngkin. In an extremely close race, Youngkin prevailed with a margin of victory that currently stands at 2 percentage points with 95% of the vote counted, which underscores how even small changes in youth voter turnout can potentially swing an election result.

The Virginia election was seen by many as a potential early indicator of voter participation heading into the 2022 midterm cycle. In 2020, according to voter file data, Virginia had one of the highest youth voting rates in the country: 56%. It had also experienced a steady increase in youth participating in “off-year” statewide elections: 17% in 2009, 26% in 2013, and 34% in 2017. As we wrote in our preview of yesterday’s contest, since 2017 Virginia has made it even easier to vote by implementing early voting, automatic voter registration, and repealing a photo ID requirement.

Young people’s electoral participation in Virginia (and in New Jersey, where data was not immediately available to produce a youth turnout estimate) may indeed be an indication of things to come in 2022 and beyond. The fact that youth turnout in Virginia appears to have decreased from the previous off-year election—even despite laws and policies that facilitate registration and voting—demonstrates that past participation does not automatically presage future voting. We need concerted, year-round, within- and between-election cycle efforts to reach and engage all youth, especially those from historically disenfranchised groups or who live in areas with fewer civic opportunities. We hope these lessons will continue to shape efforts in Virginia and across the country as we look forward to next year’s midterm elections, and to the ongoing challenge of growing voters for an equitable multiracial democracy.