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The Potential Impact of Youth of Color in Key 2020 Elections

In several states and districts in our Youth Electoral Significance Index, youth of color could be a decisive electoral force this November.

We recently published the 2020 Youth Electoral Significance Index (YESI), which lists the top 10 House and Senate races, as well as the top 10 states for the Presidential election, in which young people are poised to make an outsize impact this November. As CIRCLE research has frequently noted, young people are a diverse bloc of voters and civic actors, and the ways in which they can affect elections are just as diverse. The YESI can help parties, candidates, non-profits, and other stakeholders in the world of electoral politics identify where investing time and resources in young people can be especially crucial.[1]

In addition to its impact on the “horse race”, the YESI can also serve as a valuable tool for promoting equity and broadening engagement. In districts and states where elections are often underfunded and overlooked, a range of barriers can inhibit young people—and particularly Black, Indigenous, and other youth of color—from heading to the polls. Nevertheless, youth of color hold potential to redefine electoral possibilities and affect outcomes, especially if resources are allocated to promote and amplify youth voices.

This new analysis highlights just a few of the states and Congressional districts in which young people of color can shape and possibly decide the outcome. In many of these locations, factors that promote youth engagement coexist with others that potentially depress engagement—and so, as we note below, strategic investment in these areas can target existing barriers in order to unlock the power of the youth vote. Of course, these are far from the only states and districts where young people of color can be a factor this November, and these potential voters deserve information and outreach everywhere.

Arizona (6th in Presidential YESI, 4th in Senate YESI)

With a competitive Senate race in 2020 and 11 electoral college votes up for grabs in the Presidential race, young Arizonans could shift the balance of power in both the Senate and the Oval Office. Arizona cracked the top 10 in both the Senate and Presidential YESI rankings, which reflects its sharp transition from a ‘red’ to a ‘purple’ state in recent years, largely due to an increase in young Latino voters. About one in five Arizonans (18%) are between the ages of 18 and 29—one of the highest proportions of youth in the country—and one-third of the state’s youth identify as Latino, a bloc that has become a rapidly rising influence in state and national politics.

As a consequence of their diversity and sheer numbers, young Arizonans have been instrumental in narrowing elections: in contrast to older Arizonans, who are much more conservative, youth in the state voted for Clinton in 2016 by an 18-point margin. And while data do not exist for youth vote choice in 2018, the youth share of the electorate almost doubled from 2014, and the youth turnout rate rose by 16 points. This translated to over five times as many youth votes—including more than 20,000 votes from young Latinos—than Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s margin of victory, indicating that young people very likely carried Sinema across the finish line. In this November’s race for Arizona’s other Senate seat, Democrat challenger Mark Kelly will need to mobilize these young voters once again to topple Sen. Martha McSally, Sinema’s opponent in 2018. 

While young Latinos have tremendous potential in Arizona, investment in voter outreach is still critical to combat barriers that disproportionately affect young people of color. Arizona earned an abysmal 2 out of 10 points on the YESI’s facilitative election law score, and like Georgia, the state has faced accusations of racially motivated voter suppression. Earlier this year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated a law prohibiting out-of-precinct voting “that was plainly designed to stop Native American, Hispanic, and Black voters from casting a ballot.” Other laws restricting voting remain on the books, including measures requiring voters to provide a sworn affidavit if they cannot participate on Election Day and a restrictive voter identification law requiring photo ID or two forms of non-photo ID in order to cast a ballot. These laws restricting voting can have a toxic impact on youth participation, as young people are disproportionately affected by real and perceived barriers to voting

One way to overcome these barriers and improve electoral access for diverse youth is to cultivate strong relationships between young people and election administrators. As part of CIRCLE’s partnership with Opportunity Youth United, community action teams in three pilot sites—including Tucson, AZ—developed partnerships with local elections offices and city officials to expand voter information and reach out to young people in their communities. Further investment in local activism and community partnerships like these may weaken the barriers that make it harder for young people to vote—and, in doing so, further magnify the impact young people of color—and indeed all youth—can make in Arizona and beyond.

Georgia 7th Congressional District (7th in the YESI)

Located in northeast Atlanta and surrounding suburbs, Georgia’s 7th Congressional District has a diverse population: half of residents are foreign-born[2], and a majority of young people are youth of color. In 2018, the election in the Georgia 7th was the closest Congressional race in the nation. Incumbent Republican Rob Woodall managed to withstand a blue-wave midterm and a strong challenge from Democrat Carolyn Bordeaux, winning by a mere 433 votes (0.15%). Woodall chose not to run for re-election in 2020, and Bordeaux, again the presumptive Democratic nominee, is hoping to flip a congressional district that hasn’t voted for a Democrat since 1994.

For campaigns and party organizations, one key opportunity lies in converting already-registered young people into young voters. Youth registration rates in this district were 86% in 2018, over 20 percentage points higher than the national rate and 9 points higher than the median rate for congressional districts in Georgia. However, the youth turnout rate in this district was just 34%, meaning that three out of every five registered young people did not actually cast a ballot. That “undermobilization” rate was higher than the national average: if youth who were registered to vote had gone on to cast a ballot at the same rate as youth in the rest of the country, the youth turnout rate in the Georgia 7th would have been about 40%—the equivalent of adding 6,000 more youth votes into the fold—very likely flipping the outcome in 2018.

One possible explanation for the relatively low voting rate among registered youth is that young people of color face disproportionately high barriers to voting in this district and in the state overall. In 2018, then-Secretary of State and now-Governor Brian Kemp increased voter-purge rates and closed one-tenth of polling locations, predominantly in communities of color. Earlier this month, the Georgia state primaries received national attention for hours-long lines, confusing guidelines for mail-in and absentee voters, closed polling locations in counties with the highest proportion of people of color, and inoperable voting equipment. In Gwinnett County, one of two counties in the Georgia 7th, up to 28 precincts experienced issues with voting machines, causing late openings of polling locations and long lines throughout Election Day.

According to multiple news reports, the precincts with the longest lines and most severe problems in the state were those in communities with a majority of Black voters, sparking allegations from voting rights groups of racial bias and disenfranchisement by election administrators. The state’s failures to administer Georgia’s primary equitably despite sending absentee ballot request forms to all voters recapitulate the challenges of voting by mail (VBM). Voting by mail can be a potential solution to these problems in November, but if not administered with an eye toward equity it can also exacerbate racial disparities.

In spite of all of these systemic barriers, there are plenty of signs that youth in the state and in the 7th District can make their mark this November. In 2018, they turned out in strong numbers for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacy Abrams, whom they backed by 29 percentage points over her opponent. And the counties with the highest proportion of Black youth, like those in the 7th District, provided Abrams with the strongest support. That young people were able to turn out for Abrams and Bordeaux despite these structural barriers is a key sign of the power they can  wield in November. Unlocking that electoral potential will require investment in providing information to voters about mail-in voting options, viable polling locations, and other get-out-the-vote efforts to improve the rate at which young people of color head to the polls. These efforts could shape not just the race in the Georgia 7th but also the state’s two Senate races, one of which is 8th in our Senate YESI ranking.

Oklahoma 5th Congressional District (9th in the YESI)

Containing Oklahoma City and surrounding suburbs, Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District was the site of a major upset in 2018. Challenger Kendra Horn became the first Democrat to win a seat in this district since 1974 by knocking out incumbent Steve Russell (R), in the process becoming the only Democratic member of the Oklahoma Congressional delegation. This result was particularly striking given that the district voted for President Trump by 13 points in 2016, and elsewhere in Oklahoma proved to be favorable territory for Republicans in each of the past two electoral cycles. Even in relatively youth-heavy counties like Tulsa and Payne—home to Oklahoma State University—Trump breezed to victory by over 20 percentage points.

Given this overall partisan lean in the state, the fact that the Oklahoma 5th tipped into battleground territory highlights how the participation of diverse youth can help make races unexpectedly competitive. Unlike other districts in Oklahoma, which skew older, almost one in five citizens in this district are between the ages of 18 and 29. Of these youth, 44 percent are young people of color, a rate higher than both state and national averages. Additionally, over one-third of youth in this district are enrolled in college—a key driver of strong youth turnout, as college attendance is correlated with a higher likelihood to vote. 

These encouraging factors may have contributed to young Oklahomans in the 5th District voting at the highest rates of all districts within the state in 2018. But youth participation in absolute terms was low: just one-fifth (21%) of young people voted in this district, 8 points lower than the national youth turnout. In fact, had young people voted at frequencies equaling national averages, they would have added approximately 10,000 votes to the electorate, including over 3,300 votes from youth of color—the latter total exceeding Congresswoman Horn’s narrow margin of victory. 

One possible explanation for the lackluster turnout is that just 44% of youth in the district are even registered, a rate nearly 20 points lower than the national average. Lower registration rates hinder not just youth voting rates but also rates of outreach from campaigns and parties—key sources of information for young people, especially first-time voters. Parties and campaigns are most inclined to reach out to frequent voters for getting-out-the-vote efforts, and it is usually cheaper and easier to reach people who have been previously contacted, creating a vicious circle that often leaves  low-income youth and some youth of color behind. As our research from the 2020 primaries and the 2018 midterms demonstrates, contact matters to electoral outcomes because youth who were contacted reported a higher likelihood to vote. This challenge can be overcome, but only if adequate resources are poured into reaching first-time voters. According to the Campaign Finance Institute, candidates spent over $8 million in the average flipped Congressional District, but total expenditures in the Oklahoma 5th race were just a quarter of that sum.  

As of June 2020, the number of young people who are registered to vote in the district has stayed flat since 2016. The lack of increase is particularly noteworthy because that year there was no competitive Congressional election in the district (and the Presidential race wasn’t competitive there), and usually registration increases in anticipation of a close election. The 2018 race in the district was competitive, however, and still there was no increase. In fact, among the youngest group  of eligible voters (ages 18-19) the registration rate has fallen by over one-third compared to June 2016.

The youth who did register and vote in the Oklahoma 5th  were much less diverse than the district as a whole in 2018: just 1 in 4 young voters was  a young person of color even though the district’s population is only 56% White. If more youth of color receive the support they need to register and turn out, they could add thousands more voices to the election and become a major force in a tight race.

[1] Young people are most likely to be pivotal in close elections, so the YESI weighs the projected competitiveness of the race very heavily; most of the contests featured in the YESI are projected to be toss-ups. Yet there are many other reasons why people focus money and attention on some states and districts, so we built into our model other metrics of young peoples’ political potential. These measures include youth turnout in past cycles; the existence of nonprofits serving young people; and the presence (or absence) of facilitative election laws like automatic or online voter registration

[2] Including non-citizens

Authors: Kristian Lundberg, Abby Kiesa, Rey Junco, Alberto Medina