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Half of Youth Voted in 2020, An 11-Point Increase from 2016

Our analysis of youth voter turnout nationwide finds wide variation between states and underscores the importance of electoral laws and policies that help grow voters.

We estimate that 50% of young people, ages 18-29, voted in the 2020 presidential election, a remarkable 11-point increase from 2016 (39%) and likely one of the highest rates of youth electoral participation since the voting age was lowered to 18. Our new estimate is based on newly available voter file data in 41 states—AK, DC, HI, MD, MS, NH, ND, UT, WI, WY do not have reliable vote history data by age. This analysis replaces our earlier estimate, released immediately after Election Day, which estimated a 5 to 11 point increase in youth voter turnout compared to 2016 based on data available in that moment.

In recent weeks, we released youth voter turnout in all available states by region: West/Southwest, South, Midwest, and East/Northeast. Those analyses offer more details on several notable states and have now been updated with the latest data. Our estimates of youth voter turnout rates in more than 80% of states are in some ways a tribute to young people’s commitment to political engagement and action in 2020, and their impressive ability to navigate a changing electoral landscape during a global pandemic. The data also allows us to zoom out, look at trends in youth voter participation, and draw some conclusions about what is and isn’t working to broaden and diversify the youth electorate. We pay special attention to laws and election administration policies that affect the ease of casting a ballot in each state—from voter registration to vote-by-mail, which can always impact youth voter turnout but may have had especially large effects in 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic shifted election processes across the country.

Youth Voting Increased Across the Country

Half of eligible young voters cast a ballot in 2020. However, as is the case in every election cycle, youth voter turnout rates varied widely across the country: New Jersey (67%), Minnesota (65%), Colorado (64%) and Maine (61%) had the highest statewide youth turnout rates, while South Dakota (32%), Oklahoma (34%), Arkansas (35%), and New Mexico (39%) had the lowest.

Numerous interconnected factors shape whether youth electoral participation is high or low. These include the competitiveness of elections, how much (or how little) campaigns and organizations reach out to young people, the state’s civic culture and civic education policies, the demographic composition of the youth population, and state voting lawswhich are discussed in greater detail belowthat can either facilitate voting or pose barriers for youth. Because there’s no single reason why youth voter turnout may be high or low in a state, and no silver bullet if it’s the latter, it is crucial to examine these and other factors that may be at play in order to expand the electorate.

Turnout in 2020 was much higher than in 2016, when we estimate (using the same methodology) that 39% of young people cast a ballot. This sizable, 11-point increase builds on young people’s momentum from 2018, when youth turnout was record-setting for a midterm year. State-by-state turnout increases between 2016 and 2020 were 9 percentage points on average, but also varied widely. The largest increases in youth voter turnout were in New Jersey (+22), Arizona (+18), and California and Washington (both +17). Notably, with the exception of Arizona, all of those states automatically mailed absentee ballots to all registered voters without voters having to request them. No states saw a decrease in turnout, and in only one state (Louisiana) did the youth voter turnout rate remain flat, at 42%, between 2016 and 2020. 

Turnout of Newly Eligible Voters Stronger, but Still Lagging

We also estimate that voter turnout among young people ages 18-19 was 46%. This age group deserves special attention because they are the newest eligible voters, so their electoral participation, or lack thereof can provide a window into how well—and how equitably—we are preparing and priming youth to participate in democracy. Additionally, voting is a habit that, when formed and practiced early, is likeliest to persist later in life. But, by the same token, when preparation for voting is inequitable early in life, those inequities can also persist. 

Historically, youth ages 18-19 have voted at lower rates than their slightly older peers, and that was once again the case in 2020. However, some states managed to close the gap; in California and Washington, remarkably, voter turnout was actually higher among youth ages 18-19. But in still other states the difference was stark: in South Dakota, where 32% of young people under 30 voted, just 12% of 18- and 19-year-olds cast a ballot. As we mark the 50-year anniversary of the 26th amendment that lowered the voting age to 18, these voter turnout differences by age are a reminder that challenges to achieving equitable participation remain. They also point to the importance of a Growing Voters framework that focuses on how the education system, election administrators, and other stakeholders can ensure that we start preparing young people to vote long before they turn 18.

Electoral Laws and Policies Shaped Youth Voter Turnout

Each state has its own election laws and methods of administering elections that can affect voter participation, and the ease of registering and casting a ballot may have taken on even greater importance in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These policies may especially affect youth turnout; many young voters are new voters who need to register for the first time and who may be unfamiliar with the process. Young people also tend to move more frequently, which may mean they have to reregister and potentially learn an entirely new set of deadlines and procedures.

Understanding the effect of electoral policies on youth turnout is especially relevant at a time when the U.S. Congress is considering HR1: For the People Act of 2021. This bill would standardize some election laws across the country and nationally establish: automatic voter registration (AVR), online voter registration (OVR), same-day or Election-Day registration (SDR), early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, pre-registration, and requirements for voter registration programming in high schools. No state currently has all of these provisions in place. But by looking at youth voter turnout in states that already had a majority of these policies in place in 2020, we can examine whether they are associated with higher participation and the potential for HR1 to expand the youth electorate.

We divided states into those with a majority of the electoral policies in HR1 and those with few of the policies, and we found that, on average, states with more of these policies had higher youth turnout. States with four or more of the HR1 policies had a combined youth turnout rate of 53%, compared to 43% turnout from states with less than four policies. It appears likely that a number of policies complement each other to create a system and culture of voting that is more conducive to youth participation, and the lack of them may have the opposite effect. That said, it remains to be seen whether the way these policies are implemented at the state level, and the way they might be implemented thanks to HR1 at the federal level, would lead to similar effects.

One area of election policy not included in HR1, but uniquely critical in 2020, was each state’s rules regarding vote-by-mail. Many states changed or expanded mail-in voting in response to the pandemic, and the electorate’s preferred voting method changed drastically. According to the Survey on the Performance of American Elections, the percentage of voters (of all ages) who cast ballots by mail grew to 46%, more than doubling from 2016. The share of voters who cast ballots on Election Day fell from 60% in 2016 to 28% in 2020. 

States took different approaches to mail-in voting in 2020. Some states automatically mailed a ballot to all registered voters—a practice that was already the norm in some states like Colorado and Washington. Others automatically mailed ballot applications. In other states, voters had to request a mail-in ballot, and at the more restrictive end of the spectrum, some states did not allow using the pandemic as a valid “excuse” for voting by mail.

On average, youth voter turnout was highest (57%), and had the largest increases over 2016, in states that automatically mailed ballots to voters. States with the most restrictive vote-by-mail laws, conversely, had the lowest youth turnout: an average of 42%. As some states consider whether to keep some of the changes to ease mail-in voting that they made in 2020, or to eliminate them altogether, lawmakers would do well to keep in mind the positive correlation between these policies and young people’s voter participation.

Implications for 2022 and Beyond

Whether through national legislation like HR1 or through decisions by state legislatures, the permanence or changes to voting laws and processes will be a key factor in 2022 and in future election cycles. Young people have now voted in record numbers in both 2018 and 2020; that means there’s a record number of young people on the voter rolls, but many will need to update their registration, which can especially be a challenge in states without online or automatic registration. It’s not a given that the rise in youth voting will continue without concerted efforts from lawmakers, educators, organizers, and other stakeholders to ensure that young people are prepared and encouraged to vote.