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In Half of States, Youth Voter Registration Lower Now than in 2018

Campaigns and organizations have a lot of work to do to match youth voter registration numbers from the previous midterm cycle, especially among newly eligible voters.

Following two elections with historic youth turnout, young voters are the subject of much speculation heading into the midterms in November. Throughout the coming months, as we near Election Day, CIRCLE will release exclusive data on the state of youth voter registration in 2022—and how it compares to similar points in the 2018 midterm cycle. CIRCLE’s first analysis of youth voter registration, calculated using voter files aggregated by Catalist, offers both some reasons for optimism and a call to action for campaigns and organizers: in around half of states for which we have reliable data, the number of young people (18-24) registered to vote in June 2022 trails the numbers from June 2018, especially for the newly eligible voters.

Youth Registrations Higher than 2018 in Key Battleground States

Voter registration is a critical first step in the electoral process, and historically the lower registration rates of young people have been largely responsible for their lower voter turnout compared to older groups. In 2020, youth ages 18-24 who were registered voted at rates 10 points lower than those 65+, but youth registration was 19 points lower.

In 20 of the 41 states with reliable data, more 18- to 24-year-olds are registered to vote than at this point in 2018. Among these states, Michigan leads with a 35% increase in the number of voters registered, while Colorado, California, Arizona, and Nevada have also increased their youth voter registrations by 20% or more. Notably, many of these states that have more youth registrants now than in 2018—Michigan, Nevada, California, Colorado, North Carolina, Washington, and Georgia— rank highly in CIRCLE’s Youth Electoral Significant Index which identifies states where young people have the potential to have a significant impact in especially competitive Senate, House, and gubernatorial races this fall.

2022 Youth Electoral Significance Index

CIRCLE's 2022 Youth Electoral Significance Index (YESI) ranks the Senate, House, and Governor races where young people have the highest potential to influence the results this November.

Competitive elections are one reason why youth voter registration may increase; electoral policies are also critical. Michigan, for example, passed a number of voting reforms in 2018 to implement online voter registration (OVR), automatic voter registration (AVR), and same-day registration (SDR). We take a deeper look at the impact of voter registration policies below.

Most States Behind 2018 In Registering Newly Eligible Voters

On the other hand, many states are lagging behind, with youth voter registrations lower now than at this point in 2018. Some states are far behind: South Dakota, Kentucky, and Rhode Island have lower youth registrations than in 2018 by 20% or more. Of course, for different-sized states that can mean vastly different things. For example, Ohio’s 17% decrease in registrants compared to June 2018 accounts for 126,604 young people ages 18-24. Several smaller states, including Vermont, Nebraska, Maine, and Delaware, are around or less than 1,000 registrants away from their 2018 numbers.

Registration among 18- and 19-year-olds—young people who, for the most part, are eligible to vote in their first national election in 2022—paints a more dire picture. More than 8 million young people have reached voting age since the 2020 election. Historically, these newly eligible youth have voted at lower rates than their slightly older peers, and our data here shows that only eight states are ahead of where they were in 2018. Meanwhile, another seven states are 50% or more below their number of registrations in June 2018.

Idaho, which has recorded an 86% increase in 18- and 19-year-old registrants compared to 2018, stands out in the data for this age group. It is hard to say exactly what caused the registration increase, but Idaho has experienced some population growth and had a hotly contested, high-turnout primary election in May that bolstered registration across all ages.

A Deeper Look: Election Policies and Outreach

The 2022 youth voter registration numbers underscore the potential of election policies to expand young people’s participation in elections. Some of the states that have higher voter registration among 18- and 19-year-olds now than at this point in 2018’s registration recently implemented automatic voter registration (AVR). In 2020, states with AVR, which allows eligible voters to be automatically registered at various state agencies, had 3.5-percentage-point higher youth voter registration than states without it, according to CIRCLE’s analysis. States that have this policy in place, like Colorado (implemented AVR in 2017), California and Illinois (2018), Michigan (2019), and Nevada (2020), all have higher youth voter registration now than at this point in 2018.

That said, automatic voter registration isn’t a panacea for youth registration. In fact, quite a few states that have implemented some form of AVR in recent years, including Virginia, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Mexico, and New Jersey, are far from matching their number of youth registrants from June 2018. That’s especially notable in the case of Virginia and New Jersey, since both held gubernatorial elections in 2021 that could have served as impetus for registering youth. The differences in voter registration in states with AVR could point to important differences in implementation; for example, states can include more or fewer state agencies through which people get registered.

Beyond policies, the stark differences in voter registrations between these two age groups (18-24 and 18-19) highlight the importance of outreach and attention to youth. In recent election cycles, large investments in young voters led to high registration rates; in 2020, youth voter registration eclipsed registrations from 2016 by large margins in most states. That work to reach young people, which was led by election administrators, political and voter registration organizations, schools, and by young people themselves, led to historic participation. Because, once a voter is registered, they remain on the voting rolls until they move or fail to vote in several consecutive elections, those investments in 2018 and 2020 may be paying dividends in the form of more youth ages 20-24 registered this year.

That’s not the case for newly eligible voters ages 18-19. CIRCLE data has shown that young people without a voting history are less likely to be contacted by campaigns. The fact that most states are behind in registering youth in this age group highlights that outreach is still lacking, and that there’s a need for organizations, schools, and campaigns to redouble their efforts to register the youngest potential voters.

The new CIRCLE Growing Voters report and framework outlines a necessary paradigm shift for organizations and a variety of stakeholders to more effectively and equitably reach young people, and give them the support they need to register and vote. These kinds of disparities across states and age ranges highlight the need for a new approach to supporting young voters that diversifies and strengthens the youth electorate. Delve into the report and recommendations to learn how to start growing voters in your community, and sign up here to receive updates about our CIRCLE Growing Voters learning series throughout this summer.

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.