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Youth Turnout Among Teens Shows Need for Growing Voters

We estimate that only 23% of eligible voters under age 20 cast ballots in the 2018 midterm elections.

The 2018 midterm election year was a historic high point in youth engagement. There was an immense amount of peer-to-peer organizing (like coordinating an event, helping peer register or talking to them about the election), particularly for a midterm cycle, which tends to have lower participation than a presidential election. There was also substantial activism like marches and school walkouts. As a result of all this political engagement, the national youth turnout rate doubled compared to the previous midterm in 2014, and youth turnout increased in every state for which data is available. However, like in many previous years, the turnout rate among 18- and 19-year-olds trailed that of their slightly older (ages 20-29) peers: we estimate that youth turnout in the 2018 elections was 23% among 18- to 19-year-olds, compared to 28% nationally among all 18- to 29-year-olds.1 It’s worth noting that, while we don’t know how many youth aged 18-19 voted in 2014 and therefore can’t say how much their turnout increased in detail, it’s likely to have jumped substantially given the increase in youth turnout (ages 18-29) overall: 13% in 2014 to 28% in 2018.

Turnout Among Youth Aged 18-19 Varied Widely from State to State

Youth voter turnout regularly differs by state and even within a state, as we saw with 18 to 29-year-old statewide turnout in 2018, and in our analysis of county turnout in 2016.

In 2018, the national voter turnout for youth aged 18-19 was 23%, but state turnout rates ranged widely from 13.3% to 37.1% in the 42 states for which data is available.2 Six states significantly exceeded the national turnout with age 18-19 turnout above 30%: Colorado, Oregon, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, and Washington. The states farthest below the national rate (more than 8 percentage points below) were: Arkansas, Idaho, Illinois, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island.3

In all but one of the states for which data is available, the turnout rate of these youngest eligible voters trailed that of all youth aged 18-29; only in Nevada, did the age 18-19 turnout rate exceeded that of youth overall. The average gap between the turnout rates for ages 18-19 and ages 18-29 was 6 percentage points, but it ranged from 0.2 percentage point in New York to 14.9 percentage points in Maryland.

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.

Notable States: Colorado and Nevada

The one state where age 18-19 turnout exceeded age 18-29 turnout was Nevada. The state has has implemented many elements key to Growing Voters: a required yearlong civics course, online voter registration, pre-registration, young people who serve as poll workers, and no photo ID requirement to cast a ballot. There were also two competitive statewide races in Nevada in 2018, which frequently leads to increased voter mobilization.

Colorado has long been building a strong youth engagement infrastructure to facilitate increased participation. In 2018, turnout among 18 to 29-year-olds in the state was 41%, the third-highest in the country, and for youth aged 18-19 turnout was 34%.

The state boasts many of the facilitative laws and policies we described above, including automatic voter registration, pre-registration, online registration, teens and youth serving as poll workers, and a state code that supports voter registration in schools through the following language:

  • “Public high school principals may designate or serve as a deputy registrar.  The high school deputy registrar may register students, school employees, or any person eligible to vote, but only when the school is open for classes or community functions.”
  • “The county clerk and recorder shall train the high school deputy registrars and provide them with sufficient registration materials.”

Other states have similarly strong policies for youth engagement in place, but these did not translate into substantially higher voting rates for youth aged 18-19. That was the case, for example, in Connecticut, Kentucky, Rhode Island, Vermont, and West Virginia, consistently “blue” or “red” states that did not have competitive statewide races in 2018. In such states, building up a strong youth engagement infrastructure—within and outside of institutions—is arguably even more crucial so that turnout rates among the youngest eligible voters do not dip lower. It also underlines how much young people are motivated by their vote making a difference, and the ongoing need to work toward a robust set of organizations and institutions that encourage, instead of deterring, participation by youth.

[1] These turnout rates for youth ages 18-29 and 18-19 are CIRCLE calculations using the Catalist voter file and Census population data. Please see here for a historical comparison of the ages 18-29 data. There is not appropriate comparative data for the ages 18-19 data from this source.

[2] In several states, age data reported by the state and/or its various localities is not comprehensive enough to allow us to produce a reliable estimate of youth voter turnout.

[3] CIRCLE uses a number of sources to estimate various turnout figures. For youth turnout, CIRCLE uses the national aggregated voter file from Catalist, LLC. to get data on the number of votes cast by people who are ages 18-19 and 18-29. 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 turnout estimates.