Youth Turnout Was Big in 2020. It May Fall in 2022 If Democrats Fail to Protect The Vote.

Young voters are being targeted by the GOP.

In the wake of Trump’s defeat in November, Republicans have been busy nationwide passing restrictive voter suppression laws in an attempt to thwart Democratic turnout. While there has been some debate over the degree to which these measures would succeed–and, ironically, evidence that they might in some cases negatively impact Republican turnout–the anti-majoritarian motives of their conservative backers are undeniable and alarming.

And indeed, a new study shows evidence that rolling back options for voting may have large negative impacts on a key Democratic constituency: young voters. The Tufts University study found not only that youth turnout had dramatically increased in 2020, but also a strong correlation between higher youth turnout and state laws expanding access to voting.

Overall, voters aged 18-29 turned out heavily in the last election, outpacing the increase in turnout among the general population, according to this study from the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), the non-partisan research center on youth engagement at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life.

In a high-turnout election, young people exceeded national increases in voter participation among the overall electorate. Estimates from the United States Elections Project based on data from election offices suggest that overall voter turnout increased seven percentage points from 2016 to 2020, while the new report from CIRCLE finds it increased even more (11 points) among youth.

Given that Democratic/left-leaning partisanship increases conversely with age and does not decrease over time, this higher turnout among Millennial and Zoomer voters was almost certainly crucial to Biden’s success. It is obvious why Republicans would want to prevent this cohort from casting ballots in similar numbers again.

Most crucial to this conversation, however, is the correspondence of permissive state laws with this higher turnout. Youth turnout was not high across the country, but varied dramatically state by state:

  • Youth voter turnout rates varied widely across the country. New Jersey (67%), Minnesota (65%), and Colorado (63%) had the highest statewide youth turnout rates, while South Dakota (32%), Oklahoma (34%), and Arkansas (35%) had the lowest. The largest increases from 2016 in youth voter turnout were in New Jersey (+22 percentage points), Arizona (+18 points), and California and Washington (both +17 points). No state for which the researchers have data saw a decrease in turnout.
  • Electoral laws and policies had an impact. Researchers found a strong association between higher youth voting and states with more policies in place that make voting and registration easier, such as automatic registration, same-day registration, early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, etc. In aggregate, states with four or more of these policies had 54% youth voter turnout; states with one to three of these policies had 43%.

States that mailed ballots to every voter in the pandemic also saw not only higher overall turnout rates, but especially higher youth turnout rates.

Some of these effects may be attributable in part to variance in partisan mobilization efforts and the perception of whether a vote in that state would matter. (It’s easy to see how a young progressive in Minnesota could be more eager to think their vote would matter than one in South Dakota.) Still, those factors are unlikely to fully account for such wide discrepancies. It is, rather, exceedingly likely that when it’s easier for people to vote, those with more difficult and variable schedules will take more advantage of the opportunity.

Much of the conversation about Republican voter suppression efforts has focused on race–as well it should. But it’s clear that there should also be a strong focus on the ability of the young to cast ballots. Both are correlated, of course: 48% of Generation Z is non-white. Thus, gerontocracy and white supremacy go hand in hand. But it should be noted that not only is the Republican Party attempting to institute a new Jim Crow through voting restrictions, it is also attempting to squelch the voices of America’s future, further oppressing generations already bearing the brunt of massive structural oppression and inequality. The gig economy lifestyles, housing challenges and debt burdens that burden young people also disproportionately harms their opportunities to vote in systems tailored to stable homeowners with reliable work schedules.

This data also heightens the crisis over HR1, the John Lewis Act, and the filibuster. If Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsetn Sinema continue to refuse to amend the filibuster to pass these bills, prevent partisan gerrymandering, and increase ballot access, they will be responsible for disenfranchising million of young people, mostly of color. That won’t just harm to Democrats, likely costing the party both the House and the Senate. It’s also monstrously immoral in a country whose balance of power is tilted in favor of older white people.

Young people came out strongly for Biden in 2020, especially when they were given a better chance to do so. If Democrats don’t have their backs and protect their access to the ballot, they may not be there again in 2022.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist, and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly’s “Political Animal” and president of the Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.