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Update: Youth Voter Turnout in 2021 New Jersey and Virginia Elections

We estimate that 20% of youth voted in New Jersey and 27% in Virginia, in both cases comparable to participation in previous gubernatorial elections.

In November 2021, many observers looked to the gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia to gauge whether the trends of high voter engagement we saw in 2020 would continue and to draw potential lessons for the 2022 midterms. Immediately after those contests, we used exit polling data to produce an early estimate of 25% (+/- 3.6 margin of error) youth turnout in Virginia—data for New Jersey was not available.

Now that the voter files have been updated we can provide updated estimates of youth voter turnout in both states’ 2021 gubernatorial contests: 20% in New Jersey, and 27% in Virginia.

Some insights from the data:

  • Youth voter turnout in Virginia was slightly lower than in its most recent gubernatorial election (34% in 2017) but about the same as in the 2013 governor race. Youth turnout in New Jersey was slightly higher than in 2013 and 2017—though estimates from different data sources are being compared. (In addition, Edison Research adjusted its exit poll weighting in 2018.)
  • Voter turnout (both among youth and among the whole electorate) tends to be lower in so-called off-year elections than in midterm and presidential cycles. But, in all elections, outreach and policies can influence participation. In 2020, New Jersey automatically sent mail-in ballots to all registered voters and had the highest youth voter turnout rate in the country. It did not automatically send ballots for the 2021 gubernatorial election.
  • Our data suggests that outreach and attention to young voters is lacking in these “off-year” contests—even to youth who had proven just a year earlier that they were interested in elections and could be turned out. In Virginia, 28% of all voters who cast a ballot in 2020 did not vote in the 2021 election. But, among young people, 48% of youth who voted in 2020 did not vote in 2021. In New Jersey, the proportion of youth (and of older voters) who cast a ballot in 2020 but not in 2021 was even higher. 
  • The youth electorate still expanded in 2021. Across both the Virginia and New Jersey elections, more than 10% of all young voters were casting a ballot for the first time—whether because they just reached voting age or for another reason. In any election cycle, it is always possible to bring young people into the political process if we reach out and engage them.

As our research often highlights, the data on youth participation in the 2021 gubernatorial elections shows that youth electoral participation is not a given. That’s especially the case in “off-year” elections that do not garner the same level of attention and visibility to people who do not regularly follow state politics. Even in states where youth have shown, through their voting in recent elections, that they are interested and engaged, they must be reached by organizations and campaigns and supported by facilitative electoral policies as they continue to develop into active participants in democracy.