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Young Nonvoters: Lessons from 2018 and 2020

Campaigns are leaving millions of votes on the table by not engaging young people, who often face challenges to electoral participation.

According to CIRCLE’s exclusive estimate of young people’s voter participation, youth turnout was substantially higher in 2020 (52%-55%) than 2016 (45%-48%). While this increase in youth engagement is noteworthy, the fact remains that, in recent years, about half of all voting-eligible youth did not vote in Presidential elections. In midterm elections, more than 70% of youth did not participate. It is important to understand these young “nonvoters” so that we can better develop and implement strategies to engage them and broaden the electorate.

Our analysis uses the 2018 and 2020 AP VoteCast surveys conducted by the Associated Press, which included both people who had already voted or planned to vote, and a separate sample who said that they were “probably not” or “definitely not” going to vote. Nationally, among young people (ages 18-29), there was little difference in candidate preference between youth who cast a ballot and youth who did not: both preferred the Biden-Harris ticket by 23 to 25 percentage points. This suggests that, in 2020, the Democratic-leaning and Republican-leaning segments of the youth electorate were about equally mobilized.

When comparing youth in 2018 and 2020, young people who voted were similar in terms of vote choice. Young voters were slightly more likely to prefer a Democratic candidate in 2018 than 2020 (D+30 in 2018 and D+25 in 2020). Young nonvoters, on the other hand, look quite different between these two election cycles.  In 2018, youth who did not cast a ballot preferred Democratic House candidates by just 9 percentage points; in 2020, they preferred Democrats by 23 percentage points. Thus, it appears that the Democratic-leaning segment of the youth electorate was far more energized than Republican-leaning youth in 2018, and this enthusiasm waned some in 2020.

Georgia: Young Nonvoters Also Likely to Prefer Democrats

While it’s useful to have a sense of youth mobilization nationally, it’s perhaps even more important to examine what happened in specific states, since a lot of voter outreach work happens at that level. Georgia was one of the big stories of the 2020 election: Biden flipped the conservative state, in large part on the strength of young voters who backed the Democratic ticket: 58% for Biden to 39% for President Trump. While young white voters in Georgia supported Trump, 62% to 34%, young people of color were a major force in the electorate—especially Black youth, 90% of whom voted for President-elect Biden.

Among Georgia youth who said they would not or probably not cast a ballot, 51% would have chosen Biden, 27% Trump, 13% another candidate, and 10% said they had no preference, meaning that young nonvoters would have given a 24-point edge to Biden, which is larger than his edge among young people who did cast a ballot.  An examination of the vote choice data for both of the state’s 2020 Senate elections shows a similar pattern with regards to the margin by which they preferred a Democratic candidate. Though this survey data should be interpreted cautiously, this suggests that candidates in both races had opportunities to convince young people who were undecided or had other preferences. In a race decided by less than half of a percentage point, this underscores the potential electoral power of young nonvoters and the need for campaigns to invest in engaging and persuading them. With the January Senate run-offs on the horizon, that is an especially timely lesson.

Why Some Youth Didn’t Vote

Young people choose not to vote for a variety of reasons. Often it is not a choice at all, but the result of structural barriers that can especially hinder youth participation, and that may have been exacerbated this year by the COVID-19 pandemic. The AP VoteCast survey asked these nonvoters why they would not cast a ballot; and while we are not able to view those responses by age, the largest share of young nonvoters are under 30, and almost 7 in 10 nonvoter respondents were age 44 and under.

Our research has frequently highlighted that, when youth don’t vote, it’s often a matter of access and opportunity, not a matter of apathy. This data adds to that body of evidence: while being uninterested in politics was the most commonly cited reason for not voting, it was still cited by just under a quarter of nonvoters. The next two most common reasons, not liking the candidates and feeling like their vote doesn’t matter, may speak less to disinterest and more to a political process and culture that they do not feel is responsive to their needs and their desires. All of the other reasons cited, from being concerned about exposure to COVID-19 to not knowing where to vote, are issues of voter education and access. These findings underscore that, even as we celebrate the increase in youth voting, there’s a lot of work to do to create an electoral system that encourages and facilitates young people’s participation in democracy.


Authors: Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Alberto Medina, Alison Cohen