Broadening Youth Voting
Youth Voting in 2020
Engaging a Broader Electorate
Voting is a fundamental act of civic participation through which young people contribute to democracy. While it’s one of many ways forms that youth engagement can take, it is a powerful way for youth to make their voices heard and to have an impact on issues that affect them and their communities. Their votes can be influential and even decisive. And, because elections happen everywhere, they are universal and frequent opportunities for civic learning and engagement that can also serve as entry points to other forms of participation.
Yet, historically, young people have voted at lower rates than older adults. That may be starting to change: in 2018, youth turnout was the highest we have ever recorded for a midterm election, and young people's participation increased (compared to 2014) more than that of older voters. That said, our research consistently indicates that election systems and the preparation many young people receive (or fail to receive) to become informed voters are 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, which relies on participation. 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.
Data Tools and Major Reports
Youth Electoral Significance Index (YESI)
YESI is our exclusive ranking of where young people have the highest potential to influence elections, based on data about race competitiveness, the state's election laws, and other factors. Explore the 2020 YESI to see where youth can shape results across the country.
Report from our Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge
This 2013 report is the product of major CIRCLE research on young people's civic education and political engagement, and highlights our foundational recommendations for broadening youth voting.
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. Youth were an integral part of President Obama's electorate in both his presidential wins, and 2008 youth voter turnout was one of the highest ever recorded. Young people were influential in the 2016 Democratic nominating contest. In 2018, our most recent estimates show that a record-high 28% of young people voted in the midterms, more than doubling the record-low 13% youth turnout in 2014. Our research has also shown that youth turnout increased in every state for which we have data. Given a record-high youth participation in the 2018 election, the youth vote will likely be decisive again in 2020.
Even more striking is 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. However, the last two Democratic presidential candidates won the youth vote by 23 and 18 percentage points respectively. And in 2018, youth supported House Democrats by an extraordinary 35-point margin. This decisive youth vote choice is significant because, if young people participate in large-enough numbers, they can tip an election.
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.
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It's well-understood that the demographic background (such as race/ethnicity, gender, and educational attainment) of young people often correlates with their vote choice, a pattern that is common across all age groups. What often receives less attention is that lived experiences associated with these and other aspects of young people's identity influence whether they register and vote at all. 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.
The 2020 election, which featured heavy mail-in voting and constant changes to election processes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, introduced another element: young people of color—especially Black youth—had less experience with voting by mail and reported having less access to information about how to do it.
Youth without college experience also tend to vote at lower rates than young people in college: for example, in 2018, we estimate that 28% of youth (ages 18-29) voted, while our colleagues at the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education estimate that 40% of college students (albeit of all ages) cast a ballot. There are also disparities by age: even among youth, the youngest group (ages 18-19) vote at lower rates—and by urbanicity, with young people in rural areas and other places that we've termed "civic deserts" also having lower voter turnout.
Understanding these disparities and the systemic reasons at their core—and using that knowledge to help diverse stakeholders address them—is key to broadening youth voting.
Read more about:
- Black youth's lack of access and experience with voting by mail
- How some youth were left out of campaign outreach in 2018
- Disparities by socioeconomic background and the challenges faced by low-income youth
- Why youth don't vote: differences by race and education
- How lower youth turnout among teens show a need for Growing Voters
- Political engagement trends among youth of different races/ethnicities
Many believe that most 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. Voting in America is not a straightforward process. For instance, there are registration deadlines and requirements that are different in every state, voting may conflict with their work and/or class schedule, absentee voting rules are confusing, they may lack transportation to the polls, etc. Some of these barriers are especially acute for the youngest voters, who may for example 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. And, 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.
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. As election processes rapidly shifted in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw how a lack of familiarity with options 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, therefore, youth don't value themselves as such either. Identifying and eliminating these barriers to voting requires thoughtful, concerted efforts from multiple sectors.
Read more about:
- How a lack of information about felon disenfranchisement laws can hinder youth voting
- Young people's lack of experience with voting by mail
- The barriers to voting faced by youth from low-income backgrounds
- How barriers to voting affect youth of different races/ethnicities and educational levels
- Lessons from 2010 about barriers to registration and voting
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:
- 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. This is one of the founding principles of our work through the Teaching for Democracy Alliance
- 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
- 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.
- Youth-centered election administration: Local election officials can better understand, accommodate, and include young people as they disseminate information about registration and voting.
- A role for everyone: Many stakeholders and sectors of society have a role to play in improving youth voter participation. For example, our research has found that community organizations and nonprofits have extraordinary potential to engage new voters.
Read more about:
- Growing Voters: our paradigm for ensuring youth are prepared to participate when they turn 18
- How different states' election laws and other factors affected teen turnout in 2018
- Political outreach to youth's effectiveness in the 2018 midterms
- Our research-backed advocacy for lowering the voting age
- Our evaluation of nonprofits outreach's potential to improve voting rates
You can explore other ideas and recommendations for how to support youth civic engagement.