Democratic activists, many of them young people themselves, worked diligently the past few months to spur a big showing for the 2018 elections by youthful voters. And there was much discussion by pundits and others about how this time, unlike in past years, maybe the nation’s 18-29 year olds would cast ballots at a level much closer to that of older Americans. Many veteran election observers, though hopeful, responded to such talk with some version of I’ll-believe-it-when-I see-it.
As it turns out, seeing is believing. Thirty-one percent of 18-29 year olds did vote in the midterms this year, according to an exit poll analysis from Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). That may not seem so great considering that an estimated 48.1 percent of eligible Americans voted this year. But in the 2014 midterms, only 20 percent of the youth cohort cast ballots. Ever since 18-20 year olds got the vote, the only time young voters have previously exceeded the 30 percent level in a midterm election was 1982.
Not only that, 67 percent of young voters supported Democrats, the highest percentage ever and well above the 60 percent who backed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. The highest turnout of young voters in a presidential election—55.4 percent—came in 1972, the first year that 18 year olds could vote. In 2016, just 46.1 percent of young voters cast ballots.
Natalie Gontcharova at The Refinery reports:
“Young people approached the 2018 midterms with a resolve to change the American political landscape through peer-to-peer action, and yesterday they demonstrated their power,” says Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, CIRCLE director. “These data estimates represent a huge increase in youth participation and are a testament to the efforts that a diverse group of youth organizers built and sustained in communities and on campuses across the country. This year we also saw new stakeholders, including more universities, the private sector, and even celebrities, strengthen and deepen their approach to youth outreach and non-partisan voter engagement efforts.”
It should be noted that each election-year estimate of voter turnout of those aged 18-24 is at least slightly lower than the larger cohort of 18-29 year olds.
Calculating the youth vote results in no more than an estimate because not all states record age data for voters. CIRCLE thus relies on surveys to make its estimates, those being the exit polls conducted by Edison Media Research and the Census Bureau’s November Current Population Survey.
Right after the election, exit polls are the only data source available for making these estimates. But exit polls are limited because some voters refuse to answer them, and surveys at polling places don’t take into account early or absentee voters. The CPS data are better. Every year, the Census Bureau samples more than 50,000 Americans, asking about voting participation, registration, citizenship, and other background factors. This survey is more extensive than the exit polls, but it also has limitations. For instance, some respondents may say they voted even if they did not. Whatever its values and limits, the Census data won’t be available until early in 2019.