Broadening Youth Voting
Voting is a fundamental act of civic participation through which young people contribute to democracy. While it’s just one of many ways to engage in civic life, it is a powerful way for young people to make their voices heard and to have an impact on issues that affect them.
Historically, young people have voted at lower rates than older adults. That's starting to change: recent elections have seen historically high youth voter turnout. But major inequities in voting rates by race/ethnicity, educational attainment, region, and age group remain—often the product of highly unequal access to information and opportunities to participate.
Our work is aimed at broadening youth voting for a more equitable electorate and a more robust and representative democracy.
CIRCLE Growing Voters
24 Before '24
Youth Voting in 2022
Did You Know? Fast Facts on the Youth Vote
76% vs. 40% vs. 23%
According to our 2022 survey, 3 in 4 youth say they have the power to change the country, but just 2 in 5 say they feel well-qualified to participate in politics. Just under 1 in 4 cast a ballot. Youth aren't apathetic; we're failing to prepare and engage them.
2018: 28% | 2020: 50% | 2022: 23%
Though youth turnout in 2022 dropped from its historic high for a midterm in 2018, young people's electoral participation in recent elections has been much higher than in the previous decades.
50% vs. 20%
The education gap is one of the major inequities in youth voting, according to Census data, half of youth with a Bachelor's degree voted in 2022, compared to just 20% of youth whose highest educational attainment is a high school diploma.
In-Depth: Youth Voting
While youth (ages 18-29) 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:
- 2022: 23% of young people voted in the most recent election, a slightly drop from the historic 2018 cycle but the second-highest youth turnout rate for a midterm in the past 30 years Read more
- 2020: 50% of young people cast a ballot, one of the highest youth turnout rates in decades. Read more
- 2018: 28% of young people voted in the midterms, the highest youth turnout for a midterm cycle in decades and more than doubling the record-low 13% youth turnout in 2014. Read more
The estimates above are from CIRCLE analysis of voter file data in recent elections. Estimates based on the Census data produce slightly different results but allow us to examine historical trends over the past 50 years:
There has been a consequential but relatively recent 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. But in the past three elections, the partisan gap has widened considerably:
- 2022: Nationally, young voters supported House Democrats by 26 points Read more
- 2020: President Biden "won" the youth vote by 25 points, and young voters supported House Democrats by 26 points. Read more
- 2018: Nationally, young voters supported House Democrats by an extraordinary 35-point margin. Read more
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, youth of color and youth outside of institutions like higher education are more likely to face barriers to voting and other forms of civic participation:
- By Race: In 2022, we estimate that 29% of white youth cast a ballot, compared to 21% of Asian youth, 15% of Black youth, and 14% of Latino youth
- By Gender: In 2022, as in other recent elections, young women (25%) voted at a higher rate than young men (21%)
- By Age Group: Youth who are newly eligible to vote often do so at a lower rate. In 2022, we estimate turnout of youth ages 20-29 was 24%, and among 18- and 19-year-olds was 18%
- By State/Region: The competitiveness of elections, voting and registration policies, and other local and statewide factors shape electoral participation. In 2022, youth voter turnout was as high as 37% in Michigan and as low as 13% in Tennessee.
These differences in youth voter turnout, which are larger racial, social, and economic inequities, are not new. As with overall turnout, our analysis of Census data produces slightly different estimates but shines a light on the stubborn persistence of these inequities across the decades.
While some still believe that young people are apathetic about politics, our research shows that's not the case. Youth are passionate about issues and often want to engage in the political process, but they frequently face barriers to participation. Many of these barriers are even more consequential for youth of color and other marginalized young people, which impacts their ability to vote and their communities’ ability to be well-served by our democracy:
Confusing, Ever-Changing Election Policies: Voting in America is not a straightforward process. Registration deadlines and requirements are different in every state, voting may conflict with work and/or school, absentee voting rules can be 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 Contact and Lack of Information: Because they're less likely to have a voting history or be seen as likely voters, many political organizations neglect youth outreach. In 2022, almost half of young people we surveyed (46%) said they were not contacted by any type of organization, candidate, or party. That can lead to a lack of information and confidence: 21% of youth in 2022 said it was because they didn't feel like they knew enough, and just 40% said they felt well-qualified to participate in politics. Learn more
Foundational Civic Learning is Neglected and Inequitable: Many young people are simply not taught about elections and voting in school; both the practicalities of registering and casting a ballot and the reasons why their voices and votes matter in democracy. Learn more
Released in 2022, the CIRCLE Growing Voters report and framework is a comprehensive guide for how communities and institutions can work toward increased and more equitable youth electoral participation. It includes recommendations for campaigns, educators, nonprofits, media, philanthropists, parents, and young people themselves to lead or support transformational shifts in how we prepare youth for democracy.
Our recent research expands on those findings and recommendations: