Where the Youth Vote Can Be Decisive in the 2022 Elections
Lead Author: Alberto Medina, Communications Team Lead
Contributor: Kelly Siegel-Stechler
Young people are vital participants in our democracy. In recent elections, tens of thousands of young people have acted as poll workers and volunteered for campaigns, millions have registered and convinced others to vote, and many more have advocated for issues that affect their daily lives. Youth are also a rising force at the ballot box and had historic voter turnout in 2018 and 2020. Yet too often they remain ignored by political campaigns and organizations who neglect or underinvest in youth outreach, or target only a fraction of youth. When that happens, a wide diversity of young people’s voices are excluded from conversations about issues that affect them, and their massive potential to shape election results may not be fully realized.
CIRCLE’s 2022 Youth Electoral Significance Index (YESI) seeks to quantify young people’s likely electoral impact, and to serve as a tool for stakeholders to direct their efforts and resources to reach diverse communities of youth across the country. The YESI includes three data-based rankings that incorporate more than a dozen indicators to highlight the top 10 U.S. Senate, House, and Governor races where youth have an especially high likelihood to play a decisive role in 2022—especially if they are encouraged and supported to vote.
Our YESI rankings, which are updated as of August 1, using more recent electoral competitiveness data and following the completion of several states’ redistricting processes are:
2022 Youth Electoral Significance Index
Find the updated full rankings and read more about the factors that contribute to high potential for youth electoral impact in each race. You can also access our social media toolkit to post about the YESI rankings and the power of young voters.
Youth of Color May Be Decisive in Key Races
Our rankings highlight the power and potential of young people of color in the 2022 midterms. For example, Arizona and Nevada (which rank in both the Senate and Governor top 10s) feature a large proportion of Latino youth whose participation in 2022 may be decisive, as it already was in the 2020 election.
While Arizona has above average-rates of college enrollment and youth voter registration, Nevada ranks among the lowest in the nation on both indicators, which suggests that reaching and mobilizing young voters may require different strategies in each state. Some of those strategies were successful in 2020; Nevada had above-average youth voter turnout, especially among young people ages 18-19.
The 2022 YESI rankings also include states, like North Carolina (#7 - Senate) and Georgia (#1 - Senate, #5 - Governor) where Black youth may have a decisive influence on elections. In Kansas (#3 - Governor), New Hampshire (#6 - Senate) and Maine (#8 - Governor), engaging rural youth will be especially critical—and an ongoing challenge, as we have chronicled that many rural youth report living in civic deserts.
The diversity of the youth electorate could also shape U.S. House races. In more than half the districts in our top 10, more than 1 in 4 residents are people of color. That includes districts with heavily Latino populations like the Colorado 8th and California 27th, and the substantial Black population in the Virginia 2nd. Campaigns, organizers, and other stakeholders must be thoughtful about strategies and tactics—especially to support those from historically marginalized communities who may disproportionately face barriers to electoral participation.
YESI House Top 25
If we broaden our view to the top 25 YESI House districts, there is even more geographic variety and diversity. There are 17 different states represented in the top 25, which includes four districts in New York, three in Michigan, and two each in Ohio, California, and Pennsylvania.
Some notable districts in the top 25 include the New Mexico 2nd and California 22nd (#19 and #23, respectively, in our ranking), where more than half of the population is Latino; and the New Jersey 7th (#17) which had one of the highest youth voter turnout rates of any district in the country in 2020.
It’s key to understand the vastly different communities of youth and conditions for engagement that exist in different states and districts. Outreach to young people must necessarily be different in an urban, ethnically diverse district with a major college campus than in a district like the Maine 2nd in one of the most rural parts of the country. Likewise, facilitating youth participation requires different strategies in a state with automatic registration and easy mail-in voting like Colorado than in a state like Pennsylvania which lacks same-day registration or no-excuse absentee voting.
Electoral Laws and Voter Registration
At both the statewide and district level, many of the midterm races in our top 10 rankings are in states like Washington, California, Colorado, Oregon, and Virginia that have facilitative election laws like automatic, same-day, and/or pre-registration. Our research has consistently found that these policies can lead to higher youth voter participation.
CIRCLE’s analysis of state-by-state youth voter registration this year compared to the last midterm cycle provides a snapshot of whether some of these electoral battlegrounds are reaching youth and expanding the electorate.
In YESI-ranked states like Michigan, Nevada, Arizona, California, Colorado, Kansas, Georgia, and others, there were more young people (ages 18-24) registered to vote as of June 2022 compared to June 2018. However, states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida have fewer youth registered now than at this point in the previous midterm cycle. These three states rank relatively low in facilitative election laws, one of the data indicators that goes into our YESI rankings.
Among newly eligible voters (ages 18-19), only a handful of states like Michigan, Nevada, California, North Carolina, and Colorado have more youth registered now than in 2018. Most states are lagging behind their 2018 pace, including highly ranked YESI states like Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. Campaigns and organizations must redouble their efforts to register the youngest potential voters in these states where just a few thousand votes may decide key races.
About the Rankings
CIRCLE has produced the YESI rankings since 2016, and they have been regularly used by campaigns and organizations to target and mobilize young voters in key states. In 2020, half of our top-ranked House races, Senate races, and presidential race states flipped parties. In nine of our top-10 2020 Senate races, the number of votes cast by youth far outpaced the race’s margin of victory–underscoring that youth can and did play a major role in close races.
Projected competitiveness is a major factor in our YESI rankings because the youth vote can be most decisive in races that may be decided by a few percentage points. But the rankings also incorporate data about the demographic makeup of communities, its recent history of voter participation, and existing resources and assets that may help engage youth—or present challenges to overcome. Read more about the YESI Methodology.
We encourage campaigns, organizations, and institutions who aim to reach and activate young voters in 2022 to explore these rankings. And while our Youth Electoral Significance Index focuses on short-term impact this cycle, the work to grow voters and shape a more diverse and equitable electorate is a long-term project that must be undertaken in every state across the country.
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.