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Youth Voter Registration Already Above or Closing In on 2016 Election Levels

In 20 states across the country, more young people are registered to vote now, months before the 2020 election, than were registered in November 2016

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began to drastically alter American life, many have worried that the shutdowns, quarantines, and other restrictions would hurt electoral engagement. These concerns go double for young people, many of whom are newly eligible voters, and who frequently face logistical barriers to voter registration. Organizations focused on voter registration have had to revamp their strategies for reaching out to unregistered young people and youth who need to update their registrations due to the pandemic, shifting many of their in-person programs to online or virtual formats. At the same time, as CIRCLE polling has shown, young people are paying attention to politics, active in social movements, and acutely aware that the 2020 election will have an impact on their daily lives.

Data on youth voter registration shared here for the first time, which was calculated by CIRCLE through analysis of voter files aggregated by Catalist and Census population data, highlights that there are both reasons for optimism and for redoubling efforts to prepare youth to vote during the pandemic. Compared to November 2016 (right before Election Day), the number of young people who are currently registered to vote in 2020 is already higher in half of the 39 states for which we believe we have reliable data. That said, there is wide variance from state to state. At one end of the spectrum, in Arkansas, youth registration is still almost 20% away from where it was just before the 2016 election; meanwhile, in Vermont, it’s already up by more than 30%.

This wide range underscores that youth voter registration, like all aspects of youth electoral engagement, can be highly dependent on the civic ecosystem of a given state—i.e., the existing infrastructure that often allows for year-round opportunity and access for young people. The work of educators to prepare students to vote, facilitative election laws like online or automatic registration, the outreach efforts of national and statewide campaigns in the state, and the work of youth-serving nonprofits or other community organizations that reach young people—all these factors can drastically influence the registration rates of young voters.

While it’s a positive sign that, in many states, youth voter registration has already exceeded pre-election 2016 numbers, this data may also raise some concerns. For one thing, some (though not all) of these states had also exceeded their 2016 youth voter registration count in mid-summer 2018. That year’s election ended up having the highest youth voter turnout (ages 18-29) of any midterm since the 26th amendment lowered the voting age to 18. But it may also suggest that youth voter registration in 2016 was not particularly high in many states, and that having surpassed it in 2020 is not necessarily a sign of extremely strong youth electoral engagement.

There are states, however, that currently have higher voter registration than they did both in early November 2016 and midsummer 2018. They include Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. There are also states with lower voter registration counts now than at both those past moments, though some of the differences are small. 

Another concern may be youth voter registration among the newest eligible voters. When we look at the registration rates of 18- and 19-year-olds, the picture is slightly less encouraging. In 30 of 39 states, youth voter registration is currently below the level from election week 2016, with eight states still more than 33% away. At the other end of the spectrum, eight states have a higher number of registered young voters now than in November of 2016, but in most cases the gains have been more modest. New Jersey stands out as a positive outlier, with nearly a 33% increase in registered youth ages 18-19 than right before the last presidential election. As we’ve stated many times, the voter registration and turnout of  18- and 19-year-olds is an indicator of a state’s civic and electoral infrastructure, and of its ability to “grow voters.”

With many weeks left to go, there is still time for campaigns, organizers, and other stakeholders to make sure youth are registered to vote, and young people’s interest in the election and commitment to political change can serve as a strong foundation for that work. Crucially, those engaged in these efforts should not  make assumptions about the ubiquity of knowledge and access to information about voter registration. Our recent polling took a deeper look at some of these challenges, particularly related to a lack of information and outreach from campaigns. For example, we found that more than 36% of youth (ages 18-21) said they did not know whether they could register to vote online in their state—compared to 29% of youth ages 22-29. Age disparities also intersect with other inequities: youth ages 18-21 have been contacted by campaigns at a lower rate (by 20 percentage points) if they have no college experience, and less than those ages 22-29 with no college experience.

To campaigns, organizers, educators, and anyone concerned with young people’s participation in democracy, this data is both an encouraging sign and a call to action. There’s still time to reach young people and make sure they’re ready to cast their ballot. Efforts must ramp up now and be explicitly focused on erasing gaps and disparities in youth voter registration in order to help create a more equitable and representative democracy.