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State-by-State 2020 Youth Voter Turnout: West and Southwest

Electoral participation ranged from 39% to 63% in this region, where many states tried to facilitate voting by mail in 2020.

Shortly after the 2020 presidential election, CIRCLE used the immediately available exit polls and AP VoteCast survey data to estimate that turnout of young voters (ages 18-29) was between 53-56%, a major increase from 2016 and a likely historic level of youth or voter participation. Now that the states are updating their voter rolls, we are able to get a more granular, state-by-state view of youth turnout based on official election data. This is important: each state has its own election laws and policies, community conditions, and potential barriers that shape whether youth vote; seeing where turnout is high or low can point to what is or isn't working to expand the youth electorate.

We’re starting our analysis with a look at the West and Southwest, including key 2020 battleground states like Arizona and Nevada, and we’ll release data on additional regions in the coming days and weeks.

Our key takeaways on youth voter turnout in nine Western and Southwestern states:

  • Turnout of young people in the western and southwestern states ranged from 39% in New Mexico to 63% in Colorado.
  • Turnout of people aged 18-29 in all states in this region for which we have data rose compared to 2016. Increases ranged from 8 percentage points in New Mexico to 18 points in Arizona.
  • In California and Nevada, the voter turnout of youth aged 18-19 exceeded that of all voters under 30. In Nevada’s case, it was the second straight election (2018) in which the turnout of newly eligible voters was higher than that of youth ages 18-29, which is usually not the case. 
  • Many Western states have laws that facilitate access to voting, such as universal vote-by-mail, online voter registration, and automatic voter registration. That may explain the relatively high voter turnout in much of the region and highlight how these policies can increase youth voting.

As we think about state-by-state youth turnout, it’s important to keep in mind the national context. According to the United States Elections Project, nationally, among all voters, turnout increased 7 percentage points between 2016 and 2020 and was at its highest level since 1900. By that metric, in all nine states in this region, the turnout increases among youth outpaced that national turnout increase among the entire electorate. This follows a trend of larger turnout increases among youngest voters: in 2016, voters under the age of 30 were the only age group to improve their voter turnout over 2012; and in 2018, when turnout also surged, it increased the most among youth.

As mentioned above, another important layer of context involves election laws and administration. In several Western states, even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced many jurisdictions to adopt or expand vote-by-mail (VBM), elections have been conducted using primarily VBM, with all registered voters automatically sent a ballot. In the states where that’s the case (CA, CO, NV, WA, OR), turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds was 53% or higher. Additionally, many of these states also automatically register voters through government agencies like the Department of Motor Vehicles, including California and Nevada, where turnout of 18- and 19-year-olds (many of whom will have recently gotten their driver’s licenses) exceeded that of 18- to 29-year-olds.

Policies and Turnout: A Closer Look

A more detailed look at youth voter turnout in several states:

Colorado, which had the highest youth voter turnout in the region (63%), has ranked near the top in youth voter participation in recent elections. Even from an already high level, its youth turnout increased 11 percentage points from 2016 to 2020. The state has implemented many of the policies we highlight and recommend as part of our Growing Voters framework, including automatic voter registration, pre-registration, online registration, allowing teens to serve as poll workers, and a state code that supports voter registration in schools.

Arizona saw a tremendous amount of electoral activity in 2020, thanks to a hotly contested presidential election and the U.S. Senate race in which Democratic challenger Mark Kelly defeated the incumbent, Martha McSally. That’s likely one reason why, among all states in this region, youth turnout increased the most (18 percentage points): 33% in 2016 and 51% in 2020. Remarkably, youth turnout in this diverse state—where people of color make up 51% of the population under age 30—was relatively high despite voters having to request absentee ballots by joining the Permanent Early Vote List (PEVL), unlike most of the other states in the region which sent ballots or ballot applications automatically to all registered voters.

New Mexico’s youth voter turnout was the lowest in the region: 39%. New Mexico did not automatically send ballots to all registered individuals, though counties did have the option to mail absentee ballot applications to voters. Beyond election administration, CIRCLE’s research has also highlighted the importance of youth having adequate access and opportunities for civic engagement. New Mexico has received low marks for indicators of childhood well-being that include educational and community outcomes, which may place young people at a disadvantage as they begin their civic life.

Lastly, it is noteworthy that California’s youth voter turnout was nearly 54%, and even higher for the youngest voters aged 18-19 (57%). That compares to 37% among youth (ages 18-29) in 2016. California also has the smallest gap between turnout of youth and people aged 30+ of the states in the region. Unlike an electorally competitive state like Arizona, California does not see a lot of campaign outreach during presidential elections, and voter turnout there has been relatively low compared to other states. However, in 2020 the state dramatically expanded mail-in voting, which again points to the impact of facilitative electoral laws in expanding the electorate. 

Methods and Data Sources

CIRCLE uses a number of sources to estimate voter turnout.  For youth turnout, CIRCLE uses national aggregated voter file from Catalist, LLC. to get data on the number of votes cast by people who are ages 18-29 on Election Day.  We derive citizen population estimates from the American Community Survey 1-year state estimate. As with any turnout calculation method, a number of factors can result in slight variations in the turnout estimate. 

Alaska, Hawaii, Utah, and Wyoming were not included in this regional analysis due to a lack of reliable age data on the voter file.