Broadening Youth Voting
Youth Voting in 2022
CIRCLE Growing Voters
Engaging a Broader Electorate
Voting is a fundamental act of civic participation through which young people contribute to democracy. While it’s just one of many ways forms that youth engagement can take, it is a powerful way for young people to make their voices heard and to have an impact on issues that affect them and their communities; it can also serve as an entry point to other forms of participation.
Historically, young people have voted at lower rates than older adults. That may be starting to change: as you can read below, 2018 and 2020 saw major increases in youth voter turnout. However, there's still much work to do. Our research consistently indicates that the preparation many young people receive (or fail to receive) to become informed voters is inadequate, leading to significant variations in voting rates by race/ethnicity, educational attainment, and other socioeconomic and demographic factors.
When certain groups have more say in what happens in their communities and the nation, we fall short of the premise of our democracy. At the same time, we miss an opportunity to improve our communities and the systems that develop informed and passionate civic actors by not actively addressing structural barriers to civic learning and opportunities. Thus, broadening youth voting is one of the vital tasks in strengthening democracy.
Youth More Optimistic about Democracy than Older Voters, Less Inclined to Identify with Major Parties
Data Tools and Major Reports
Youth Voting and Civic Engagement in America
Our comprehensive data tool features more than 30 individual indicators of young people's participation and the conditions that shape their engagement, including youth voting data from the 2016 and 2018 elections—2020 data will be added in the coming months.
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.
RAYSE: Reaching All Youth Strengthens Engagement
Our exclusive tool provides county-level data on electoral history, population, quality of life, and other factors that influence engagement in order to guide local conversations and investments to increase youth voting and participation.
Themes and Areas of Research
While youth continue to vote at lower rates than older Americans, recent election cycles have provided reasons for optimism—and shown that candidates and campaigns ignore young people at their peril. In 2018, a record-high 28% of young people voted in the midterms, more than doubling the record-low 13% youth turnout in 2014. In 2020, we estimate that 50% of young people cast a ballot, one of the highest youth turnout rates in decades. Read more
There has been a consequential shift in youth vote choice. In decades past, young people split their votes somewhat evenly between Democrats and Republicans: as recently as 1988, Republican George H.W. Bush won the youth vote on his way to winning the presidency, and as recently as 2002 the national youth vote choice for House candidates was roughly 50-50. In 2018, youth supported House Democrats by an extraordinary 35-point margin, and in 2020 by 26 points. The last two Democratic presidential candidates (Clinton and Biden) won the youth vote by 18 and 25 percentage points, respectively. Read more
Voting by Generations
While it's true that young people generally vote at lower levels than older adults, those from older generations voted at similar rates than today's Millennial and Gen Z youth when they were at the same age. Our analysis has found that, for the first presidential election in which a generation's entire 18-24 age cohort was eligible to vote (1972 for Boomers, 1992 for Gen X, 2008 for Millennials), each participated at about a 50% rate. This highlights that lower youth voting rates are not a sign of generational apathy, but of systemic barriers and issues with the culture of political engagement that have plagued young people of various generations for decades.
It's well-understood that the identities, background, and experiences (such as race/ethnicity, gender, and educational attainment) of young people often correlate with their vote choice, a pattern that is common across all age groups. What often receives less attention is that they also influence whether youth register and vote. In particular, some communities of color and youth from other historically oppressed groups are more likely to face barriers to voting and other forms of civic participation.
Differences by Race and Gender
Young women have voted at a higher rate than young men in recent election cycles; part of a broader trend of higher civic engagement among young women. Historically, white youth have voted at a higher rate than young people of color—though Black youth voter participation matched or exceeded that of white youth in several presidential elections. More recently, Asian and Latino youth have increased their voter turnout. But stubborn voting gaps by race/ethnicity remain an impediment to the pursuit of an equitable multiracial democracy. Read more
Differences by Education
Youth without college experience also tend to vote at lower rates than young people in college: for example, in 2020, we estimate that 50% of youth (ages 18-29) voted, while our colleagues at the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education estimate that 66% of college students (albeit of all ages) cast a ballot. Our research has found that young people without college experience can be disproportionately impacted by barriers to voting, while youth who are in college are more likely to be contacted by political organizations and campaigns. Read more
Differences by Age, State, Urban/Rural, etc.
Many other factors correlate with youth voting and can lead to or manifest inequities in civic and political engagement.
- Age: The youngest potential voters, who are newly eligible members of the electorate, have historically voted at lower rates. In 2020, turnout of youth ages 18-19 nationally was 46%, compared to 50% for all under-30 voters. Many campaigns and organizations focus on individuals with a history of voting or others they consider "likely" voters, thereby leaving out those new to the electorate. Read more
- State: Youth electoral participation can also vary widely by state: in 2020, youth voter turnout ranged from 32% in South Dakota, to 67% in New Jersey. Myriad aspects of a state's civic and political environment can influence youth participation, including whether election laws and policies make it easier to register and vote. Read more
- Urban/Rural: Our research has found that a majority of rural youth believe they live in Civic Deserts—parts of the country where they see few opportunities for political learning and engagement. In 2020, four out of the five states with the lowest youth voter turnout (SD, OK, AR, WV) are also among the most rural states in the country. Read more
Many believe that young people are apathetic about politics; research, including ours, shows this is not the case. Young people are passionate about issues and often want to engage in the political process, but they frequently face barriers to participation. As we explore throughout our research, many of these barriers are even more consequential for youth of color and other marginalized young people, which impacts their ability to vote individually, but also their communities’ ability to be well-represented and served by our policies and institutions.
Voting Laws, Policies, and Processes
Voting in America is not a straightforward process. Registration deadlines and requirements are different in every state, voting may conflict with work and/or class schedule, absentee voting rules are confusing, voters may lack transportation to the polls, etc. Some of these barriers are especially acute for the youngest voters, who may struggle to update their voter registration when they move dorms each year in college, or who are less likely to have a driver's license to use as a voter ID. Learn more
Lack of Civic Education, Engagement, and Outreach
Other barriers run deeper: many young people have not been taught about elections and voting; both the practicalities of registering and casting a ballot and the reasons why their voices and votes matter in democracy. For example, in 2020, we saw how a lack of familiarity with processes like voting by mail became a potential hindrance to youth participation. Moreover, young people are often ignored by political campaigns—which tend to rely on records of previous voting—creating a vicious circle in which candidates do not value youth as voters and youth, who don't see themselves valued, don't vote. Read more
The barriers and disparities that prevent all young people from participating equitably in democracy are not immutable. Much of CIRCLE's work has been dedicated to identifying the specific interventions, initiatives, and reforms that will increase and broaden youth voting and civic engagement:
- CIRCLE Growing Voters: Our research has shown that we must start preparing young people to participate in democracy before they turn 18. That includes a strong, comprehensive civic education that explicitly teaches about elections and voting; election administration that centers youth; media that includes young voices; local youth organizations that incorporate voter education and engagement into their work; etc.
- Facilitative election laws: Laws that make it easier for young people to register to vote, such as automatic registration, same-day registration, and pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, can improve youth voting rates. Our research also supports the idea of lowering the voting age in local elections. Read more
- Campaign outreach and direct engagement: Young people are much more likely to vote when they're directly asked and encouraged to do so, both by campaigns and by relatives and peers. Broadening outreach and intentionally focusing on young people from underserved or marginalized communities can expand the electorate. Read more