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Youth Voter Registration Has Surpassed 2018 Levels in Many States, but It's Lagging for the Youngest Voters

Ahead of National Voter Registration Day, there's a lot of work to do to register 18- and 19-year-olds: the newest eligible voters.

Author: Ruby Belle BoothElection Coordinator
Contributors: Alberto Medina, Peter de Guzman

Note: This analysis of youth voter registration, originally published over the summer with June data, was updated in September. We have also made a correction to the data on youth voter registrations by gender.


 

As of early September of this year, almost half of states for which we have reliable data (18 out of 41) already have more young people, ages 18-24, registered to vote than they did in November 2018—a positive sign for youth electoral participation in the 2022 midterms. However, among just the youngest potential voters, ages 18-19, only a handful of states (9 of 41) are above their 2018 registrations and many remain far behind, highlighting that there’s a lot of work to do to reach these newly eligible members of the electorate during the upcoming National Voter Registration Day and ahead of fast-approaching registration deadlines.

Our previous analysis of youth voter registration that compared June 2022 to June 2018 had found that, while some states were outpacing their youth registrations from the last midterm elections, others still had significant work to do. Since then, more states held their 2022 primaries, and national events like the Supreme Court ruling on abortion, continued hearings by the January 6th Committee, and legislative action in Congress may have spurred young people’s electoral attention and action.

We also find a gender gap in voter registrations among youth under age 30. Some election observers have noted that, since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in late June, voter registration by women is outpacing registrations by men by significant margins. Our analysis finds that nationally, among new young registrants (ages 18-29) from August to September 2022, young women account for 54% and young men comprise 46% of the registrants. That’s a shift from previous election cycles, in which voter registrations have been fairly evenly split by gender. Because our data on youth registrations by gender only includes registrations several weeks after the Dobbs decision; it's possible that the gender gap is even wider since earlier this summer, and we will continue to track this trend as states update their voter rolls.

Strong Registration Numbers in Key States

CIRCLE’s new analysis of youth voter registration, calculated using voter files aggregated by Catalist, highlights major increases in several states that have already surpassed their November 2018 youth registration numbers. That includes several states that rank highly in our Youth Electoral Significance Index (YESI) lists of races where young people have the highest potential to decisively impact election outcomes: Michigan (+32%), Kansas (+18%), Colorado (+13%), Nevada (+12%), and North Carolina (+10%), are showing significant increases over November 2018 registration numbers, meaning thousands more young voters are already on the voting rolls months before the election.

2022 Youth Electoral Significance Index

CIRCLE's 2022 Youth Electoral Significance Index (YESI) ranks the Senate, House, and Governor races where young people have the highest potential to influence the results this November.

Other states with competitive elections where youth are likely to have impact, like Oregon, Maine, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Georgia are still trailing their November 2018 youth registrations. But they’re behind by less than 5%, which puts them in good position to surpass their registrations among voters ages 18-24 in the coming weeks, as states approach their voter registration deadlines.

It’s worth remarking further on youth voter registrations in Kansas, which has been in the national spotlight since its August primary which also featured a referendum on abortion. Compared to November 2018, Kansas has 17% more 18- to 24-year-old registrants—the third-largest increase of all states for which we have data. That’s an increase from June, when youth registrations in Kansas were only up 7% compared to November 2018, which suggests that the primary and referendum may have brought young people into the voter rolls.

Registering Newly Eligible Voters Remains a Challenge

Kansas is also one of only 9 states where registrations among 18- and 19-year-olds have already surpassed November 2018: they are 3% higher. That represents a major increase from June, before the primary and abortion vote, when youth voter registrations among this age group in Kansas were 43% lower than in November 2018.

Other notable states with higher registration rates of newly eligible voters include North Carolina (+6%), Nevada (+9%), Michigan (+20%), and Idaho, which remarkably has 66% higher voter registrations in this age group now than in November 2018. On the other hand, more than 30 states have yet to match their 2018 numbers, and many have a lot of work to do, including electoral battlegrounds like Pennsylvania (-21%), Georgia (-42%) and Arizona (-51%). While we are comparing September to November, which means campaigns and organizations still have some time to “catch up” and match or exceed their 2018 numbers, these registration numbers for the youngest members of the electorate should serve as a call to action in the coming weeks, including on the September 20 National Voter Registration Day, a civic holiday that has proven especially effective at registering young voters

We should note that, as of September 2022, Delaware, Massachusetts, and Kentucky had not updated their data since earlier this summer (June-July). Texas updated its data the second week of September and shows 12% more registrations among 18- to 24-year-olds than in November 2018 and 6% fewer among 18- and 19-year-olds—which, while still trailing November 2018 registrations, shows significant improvement in the last few months. 

A Deeper Look: Election Policies and Outreach

The 2022 youth voter registration numbers underscore the potential of election policies to expand young people’s participation in elections. Some of the states that already have higher voter registration among 18- and 19-year-olds now than in November 2018 recently implemented automatic voter registration (AVR), including California and Illinois (implemented AVR in 2018), Michigan (2019), and Nevada (2020). Our research previously found that in 2020, states with AVR had 3.5-percentage-point higher youth voter registration than states without it

That said, automatic voter registration isn’t a panacea for youth registration. In fact, several states that have implemented some form of AVR in recent years, including Virginia, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Mexico are far from matching their number of 18- and 19-year-old registrants. That’s especially notable in the case of a state like Virginia, which held a gubernatorial election in 2021 that could have served as impetus for registering youth. The differences in voter registration in states with AVR could point to important differences in implementation; for example, states can include more or fewer state agencies through which people get registered.

Beyond policies, the stark differences in voter registrations between these two age groups (18-24 and 18-19) highlight the importance of outreach and attention to youth. In recent election cycles, large investments in young voters led to high registration rates; in 2020, youth voter registration eclipsed registrations from 2016 by large margins in most states. That work to reach young people, which was led by election administrators, political and voter registration organizations, schools, and by young people themselves, led to historic participation. Because, once a voter is registered, they remain on the voting rolls until they move or fail to vote in several consecutive elections, those investments in 2018 and 2020 may be paying dividends in the form of more youth ages 20-24 registered this year.

That’s not the case for newly eligible voters ages 18-19. CIRCLE data has shown that young people without a voting history are less likely to be contacted by campaigns. The fact that most states are behind in registering youth in this age group highlights that outreach is still lacking, and that there’s a need for organizations, schools, and campaigns to redouble their efforts to register the youngest potential voters.

The new CIRCLE Growing Voters report and framework outlines a necessary paradigm shift for organizations and a variety of stakeholders to more effectively and equitably reach young people, and give them the support they need to register and vote. These kinds of disparities across states and age ranges highlight the need for a new approach to supporting young voters that diversifies and strengthens the youth electorate.

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.