The Youth Vote

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.


  1. Count me as one of the curmudgeons perpetually disappointed in the number of not just the younger but all liberals/Dems who fail to vote.
    The “Archie Bunker” reference is likely lost on many but I get it. Showing my vintage…

  2. Once again, it is the responsibility of the Democratic Party to bring forth candidates that excite young people. So far, they’ve failed to deliver, opting instead to push a senile old fart who can’t remember what he had for breakfast. 😉

    Sorry, but Grandpa doesn’t excite progressives, and neither do his policies. Accepting McCarthy’s terms of flipping the switch on student loans won’t help much, either. There is plenty of excitement around the populist RFK Jr. I suspect he’ll gain traction when more people hear him speak and then Google his family’s history.

    Elizabeth Warren or Indiana’s Pete Buttigieg would attract progressives. Trump certainly doesn’t attract youth voters.

    Go, RFK Jr.!!!

  3. “Older Americans haven’t exactly been civic role models.”

    Voters of all ages continue to count President Biden out of the running because of his age; but the Republicans are staunchly behind Trump who is of the same generation. President Biden moves stiff and slowly but his mental capabilities are running strong. We here on the blog look to Sheila for information and leadership regarding our government’s leadership…and the lack of leadership. She is of the same generation of Biden and Trump; she is a woman and a Jew we look to daily, all things the Republican MAGA, Freedom Caucus and too many Democrats of all ages are trying to remove from leadership and lawmaking. Are there any of the youth generation reading and commenting here…if so, please speak out now.

    People of all ages ignored my warnings of Trump’s probability of becoming president in 2016 and again in 2020 and continue ignoring my warnings today. SEVEN MILLION voted for 3rd and 4th party candidates rather than either major party. It is not the youth vote who keep Trump in the top Republican position to return to the White House. Look at the age range of those who followed his leadership to the January 6th Insurrection, it wasn’t the youth range who installed that noose to hang Pence.

    “As we’ve seen, when only culture warriors are motivated to vote, we get “lawmakers” like Tommy Tuberville and Marjorie Taylor Green.”

    I do believe we deserve better; had we not established the current level of democracy, Rule of Law and supported the Constitution for all Americans, the Republicans would not be spending what must now be in the billions of dollars and fighting so hard to destroy what we built. It is worth fighting for…for the youth generation. We old Archie Bunker codgers won’t be here to enjoy or suffer the results.

  4. I always caution people to not use the number of registered voters ad the denominator when calculating turnout.

    The number of registered voters varies wildly from one county/state, etc. to another depending on whether there has been a purge of non-voters (people who haven’t voted for several elections) from the list. Our voter registration rolls are filled with people who are deceased or who have moved and are registered at multiple locations. As a result, that artificially makes the turnout numbers look lower than they actually are. Indiana has notoriously been bad about getting around to purge non-voters. When you look at number of registered voters versus the number of adults in Indiana counties, you often see 95% or more registration. That is because of duplicate and deceased names on the voter registration lists.

    As far as young people voting in large numbers on a regular basis, I’ll believe that when I see it.

  5. As one of those old voters who has done so in every election I have been eligible for, I find RFK, Jr. , an anti-vaccine proponent, just another wealthy ideologue who believes himself somehow more qualified to decide what the rest of us need than those who actually devote years to actually doing the science necessary to protect us as much as possible.
    Voting rights, education and bodily autonomy are the basic issues facing us, IMO. Younger voters are not the only ones those issues directly impact.
    Voting isn’t a guarantee when there’s no contest. Unfortunately, in Indiana there are too many offices where there is no contest due to gerrymandering and voter indifference. When that’s the case, fascism has historically been the result. We are in peril of repeating history through willful ignorance and complacency.

  6. JD, would you consider his uncle, JFK Jr., a “wealthy ideologue?”

    JFK was dangerous to the oligarchy because he was wealthy. Fighting Big Pharma isn’t for the faint of heart.

    Jus sayin…

  7. It’s strange that small voter turnout only seems to guarantee hard-right loons and devotees of goose-steppers – ala Green and all the other psychos republicans adore.

    I never see a small turnout putting some truly hard-left person into government. AOC/Warren/Sanders are about as left as federal government gets and none of them would be considered crazy by a reasonable person. The farthest the left goes is “maybe we should make sure people don’t die or go bankrupt due to illness” whereas the right screams about great replacement and space lasers starting wildfires.

    Maybe we need our own crazies just to balance is all out?

  8. Dirk; it cannot be argued that the ranting, screaming, off-the-wall, crazies are getting the attention, the money and the votes. Democrats speak politely, rationally, using facts and figures, and are drowned out under the endless barrage of loud-mouths who get the attention. Have you ever visited someone in a mental hospital…when this country provided hospitals for those with mental conditions? I have; my brother was committed at age 15 to Norman Beatty Memorial Hospital for the Criminally Insane, the only hospital in this state to treat violent patients. As a newborn with a small tumor on his forehead he was treated with radiation; what did doctors know about using radiation in 1944? For my brother it scrambled his brains and resulted in epilepsy. Because he could not be diagnosed that was the hospital to accept him after my parents filed charges to have him arrested. Those many clanging shut doors and metal gates behind my parents and I were frightening enough but we were warned while sitting in the visitation room NOT to react to any violent or screaming patients. We are now sitting in that visitation room which was once the nation of America and told not to react to the violence or screaming crazies running our government. My parents and I and other visitors could leave the hospital but we have no escape from the Trump MAGA, White Nationalist, Freedom Caucus Republicans, we are as locked in as the patients in Norman Beatty Memorial Hospital for the Criminally Insane.

  9. “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.”

    In our dreams.

  10. The “youth” of previous generations have had reason to vote. War, racial inequality, feeling a part of a movement (JFK, Obama). Perhaps today’s youth will use gun violence as their reason to turn out in meningful numbers. It would be an excellent reason.

  11. Re: RFK Jr. I would have a hard time voting for someone who ignores the science behind vaccines. When I was a child, people, especially children, were stricken by polio. Of those that didn’t die, many were crippled or worse. There may be risks associated with any vaccine and most doctors/scientists would acknowledge them, but the protection they offer outweighs the risk and the developers have accounted for it. What else is he questioning? How does he campaign and appeal to non-MAGA voters?

  12. I just pray that the wrong wing leaders continue to offer thoughts and prayers after every mass shooting. I know of no better way to engage young voters than to offer up thoughts, prayers, and open carry laws after every school shooting.

    My hope for our young people is that they don’t lose their way, like so many of my generation did.

  13. We voters probably all have assumptions about why non-voters don’t, but I don’t recall any actual data on non-voters’ reasoning. Seems like research on that would be the first step in crafting a message about what’s in it for them and why it’s urgent. So much money is wasted running campaign commercials ad nauseam. Why not less, but more effective, appeals?

  14. As a WW II vet I am probably the senior respondent to Sheila’s blog, having lived through the Great Depression, the Wagner Act, FDR’s New Deal, John L. Lewis’s UMWA brawls with coal mine operators, WW II rationing etc. That doesn’t mean I have better opinions than anyone else, but I do claim a perspective borne out of personal experience rather than (but including) textbooks and propaganda as one of a coal miner’s three sons born during the pre-Hoover regime of (Silent) Calvin Coolidge. I am thus moved by the personal experience JoAnn relates today. Reading about something and living it are two very different things.

    Back to today’s topic > I agree with JD and disagree with Todd in re the No Jab whacko whose family has (politically and rightly) given him the gate. Can you imagine having this guy in charge of (so far) the world’s biggest economy and military force? He might make Trump or DeFascist look good by comparison.

    So Biden can’t find his pants, if there is any truth to such patter? That is not a presidential qualification. He just handed McCarthy his head on a plate while negotiating a complex budget matter involving a deficit that few could navigate, including both Trump and Bobbie’s progeny.

    I plead guilty to being an old curmudgeon and just recently a Great-Great Grandpa, but I plead not guilty to Todd’s assertion that Grandpas don’t excite progressives. I, for instance, backed Elizabeth Warren in her run for office, and she was and is hardly a friend of the oligarchs.

    Finally, I share Paul’s pessimism on a distracted youth voting on a regular basis, though I fervently hope we are wrong, if for different reasons.

  15. John,

    There is considerable research on why non-voters don’t vote:

    – Lack of civic education
    – Optics of “pols” who seem to do little but care about the Party, ideology, money, power
    – Optics of crony capitalism in total control
    – In many places, the increased difficulty of voting and/or understand how the rules constantly change
    – “Newsertainment” which focuses on sports, amusement, celebrity and other “fun” rather than threats to “everyday” democracy

  16. For now. Republicans are sawing away at public education, so young kids today are going into conservative, segregated indoctrination factories. When these young kids get old enough to vote, things might shift considerably.

  17. Gerald. I can’t quite match you in age but I am as old as Biden. Seems like all 3 of us are mentally sharp. FDR led us through WW II without being able to walk without assistance. I don’t think creaky joints are any disqualification for the Presidency. Biden is obviously up to the task. All claims to the contrary are not based on reality. They start out as wrong wing propaganda and get picked up by media looking for attention and others with an ax to grind.

  18. Those defending Biden or Harris for that matter, the media team allowed to surround him, have been handpicked to ensure neither one receives tough, legitimate questions. Not sure how the debate will be handled with RFK, Jr.

    As for being a “science denier,” that tells me ya listen to Mainstream Media – propaganda. His book is full of facts proving Fauci was a corrupt Big Pharma stooge, yet a protected man within the oligarchy. Give it a read…

    Again, not sure how NBC and CBS will handle RFK on primetime. 🙂

  19. I am a supporter of vaccinations as l have lived in a time when polio, measles, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, smallpox, HIV/Aids and any number of other diseases where fatal or permanently disabling to family, friends and classmates.
    His book is full of crap.
    When he has done the real work of immunological science, years of training and experience and can show some real science to back up his claims, claims that can be replicated, then I might be open to his nonsense.
    Wealth and power provide opportunity not available to others no matter their ideology. See just about any mainstream religious organization for examples of the corruption that comes with both.
    BTW, even his siblings have called him out for his “beliefs”. Those beliefs are not facts.

    My previous post about uncontested contests is much more to the point of this discussion.

  20. JoAnn, I’m a progressive, and i would certainly NOT like to see RFK Jr, as POTUS!
    Don’t do to Biden what the “Anyone but Hillary” people did for Trump. History shows that
    when a sitting president has a difficult primary battle, he invariably looses!

    I’ve not missed a vote since voting in 1960. I have hope for the “youth” vote in ’24, and would
    love to see the Australian system adopted here…fat chance!
    As much as our culture has been wounded since Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” with several GOPIGGIES
    having been “elected” POTUS due to various manipulations, we need to decisively end the MAGA madness
    with an overwhelming turnout in ’24.
    Still, the bigots will not just disappear, but they ought to have no say in politics, maybe as much as the Whig
    party has.

  21. Australia is proof that mandatory voting will not guarantee the outcome of your desire. The country has been moving to the right since 1975.

    BTW, what happened in Australia in 1975?

  22. Ian,

    AU is a US military base.

    JD will not be voting for RFK, Jr. – Got it!!!

  23. You go Gerald! Todd there is only one set of questions regarding the vaccines to consider how many deaths with them and how many deaths without them. Fauchi does not matter. Fauchi is irrelevant. All of those other issues are important to discuss and understand, including Fauchi’s connections, but the yes or no question regarding vaccines is simply a death rate issue.

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