There are two very important things to know about that imprecise data point we call “the youth vote.” There is substantial agreement about one of those things, and equally substantial disagreement about the other.
The data is convincing when it comes to the political preferences of young Americans: they lean Left to a marked degree. Actually, we can argue about the definition of “Left,” since in former, saner times, much of what we now call Left used to be considered pretty moderate, but we are where we are–and where we are is with a youth cohort likely to vote overwhelmingly Democratic.
There is far less agreement on the second issue–turnout. Will that youth cohort appear at the polls in numbers sufficient to make a real difference?
A number of older Americans–some of whom comment here–have been permanently soured by past performance. Until very recently, young people (variously identitified as those 18-29 or 18-35) have been less likely to vote than their elders (although older Americans haven’t exactly overwhelmed their polling places either.) And–like curmudgeons in ages past– some older Americans are simply Archie Bunkers when it comes to any aspect of the nation’s youth.
Whatever the merits of the contending arguments, and whatever the age range considered “youth,” turnout by younger voters will obviously be very important in the upcoming election cycle, so I did a moderately deep dive into the data, and found evidence that turnout among young voters has increased in recent elections. Obviously–as those investment analyses always warn us– past performance is no guarantee of future behavior, but charting trends can suggest a trajectory.
The following data, pulled from the United States Census Bureau and other reputable sources, shows that, in 2018 and 2020, there was a notable increase in voter turnout among young people compared to previous years.
According to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), in the midterm 2018 elections, youth voter turnout (which CIRCLE defines as turnout by ages 18-29) reached 36%. That isn’t exactly a “wow” number, but then neither is 50.3%, which is the percentage of all eligible voters who turned out in 2018. Youth turnout actually equalled the 36 percent of eligible Americans who had bothered to cast ballots in 2014.
What is more significant than the percentage of young people who voted in recent elections is the fact that youth turnout has substantially increased compared to previous midterms.
In the 2020 presidential election, estimated youth turnout rose to 52-55%, a pretty significant surge in engagement.
For obvious reasons, both youth and older voter turnout have increased more sharply in swing states. In states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, where the 2016 presidential election was decided by incredibly slim margins, there were notable increases in youth voter participation. The 2020 primary elections witnessed a surge in youth voter turnout compared to previous primary cycles in Texas, California, and North Carolina,for example.
Civic engagement isn’t confined to vote turnout, of course. Over the past decade or so, we have seen increasing activism among young Americans on behalf of social and political issues. Engagement in movements such as Black Lives Matter, and organizations advocating for climate change and gun control has grown–and absent substantial progress on those and similar issues, there is no reason to expect a return to previous levels of apathy.
Youth turnout is important because it is a lopsidedly Democratic age cohort, but what really struck me as I looked into these numbers was the pathetic civic performance of us older Americans. Yes, many young folks have historically ignored their civic duty to vote, but so have millions of their parents and grandparents.
Older Americans haven’t exactly been civic role models.
The fact that only 50% of eligible Americans cast ballots in 2018 can’t all be attributed to vote suppression. Instead, it signals a lack of what we used to call “civic virtue.” When half of those entitled to vote don’t bother, we elect the buffoons, ignoramuses and Neo-Nazis who appeal to small but passionate slices of the voting public–constituencies that do turn out.
The 36% of youth who voted in 2018 matched the 36% of all registered voters who came to the polls in 2016. I personally think both of those percentages are shameful.
Maybe we should emulate Australia, where voting is mandatory. Punishment is relatively minor– failure to cast a ballot will result in a small fine–but the result is a culture that encourages voting, and an electoral result that more closely mirrors the actual preferences of the population.
As we’ve seen, when only culture warriors are motivated to vote, we get “lawmakers” like Tommy Tuberville and Marjorie Taylor Green. I’d like to say we deserve better, but given our levels of civic participation, maybe we don’t.