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The Effects of Competitiveness and Ballot Measures on Youth Turnout

We explore how closely contested elections and ballot initiatives about hot-button issues influenced youth participation in the 2014 midterms.

As part of our continuing analysis of the 2014 midterm elections, we’re taking a look at different factors that may have affected youth voter turnout across several states.

One of the biggest factors is the competitiveness of elections. We’ve grouped states, based on pre-election polls, into three groups: Republican-favored, Democratic-favored, and “competitive” states. Youth turnout1 in these three groups varies quite a bit, but the estimated turnout is much higher in states with at least one competitive race.2

One reason for higher turnout in competitive races is increased outreach. Young people respond to contact, which is more common in close campaigns. Republican candidates, especially, may have targeted their outreach to young people in particularly competitive races.

Before the election, we looked at the previous four election cycles to understand whether the presence of a ballot measure on controversial issues like marijuana legalization or gay marriage increased youth turnout. To further understand whether these ballot measures played a role in the 2014 election, we compared youth turnout in states with one or more hot-button issue ballot measures and a competitive statewide election (Senate or Governor) and states with a competitive statewide election but no ballot measures. We found that these two groups of states did not differ significantly in 2014 turnout: 27.9% of young people in the competitive states with ballot measure voted, compared to 26.0% in competitive states without ballot measures.

However, when we compare the turnout change from 2010, the most comparable recent election, we find that the aggregate turnout was up significantly (by 5 points) in states with ballot measures whereas turnout was roughly the same in states without controversial ballot measures (down by 1 point). Given that virtually all of the states included in this analysis had a competitive race in 2010 (Iowa is the only exception), differences in candidates’ competitiveness is not likely to be a factor.

We should note, however, that ballot measures do not automatically motivate young people to turn out to vote. Instead, youth-targeted outreach and increased media coverage of the election and ballot measure issues are known to increase turnout, along with many other factors. Finally, voting is just one form of civic engagement. Structural and sustained changes in voter and civic education, instead of temporary excitement about a specific candidate or issue, are the most important and successful strategies to keep young people engaged.

[1] We estimate youth turnout for groups of states by combining estimate youth vote counts from relevant states that had exit polls, divided by the sum of eligible young citizen counts (based on the Census data).  We can only include states with exit polling in these estimates because we use youth vote share (% of votes cast by people ages 18 to 29) to estimate youth vote count for this analysis.

[2] Information on the competitiveness of state races was derived from New York Times and this group of states included AK, AR, CO, GA, IA, KS, KY, LA, MI, NH and NC.  We also derived information about Republican or Democrat candidate favor from the New York Times.