When making sense of the youth voter turnout in the 2018 midterm elections, there’s good news, bad news, and some more good news.
Early estimates show young people voted at historic rates. About 31 percent of people aged 18 to 29 voted in the midterms this year (a significant increase from 21 percent in 2014), according to a day-after exit poll by Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. The estimate suggests the midterm elections marked the highest level of participation among young voters in the past quarter century.
NextGen America, an advocacy group focused on climate change, monitored 41 youth-dense precincts (where more than 50 percent of registered voters are aged 18 to 35) and found that nearly all saw greater voter turnout than in 2014.
That’s the good news. Now the bad news: While turnout among youth was higher this time around, there are plenty of Americans voters under 30 who didn’t vote. For the 2018 midterm elections, voters aged 18 to 29 only accounted for 13 percent of voters nationally, according to ABC’s preliminary exit poll.
DoSomething, which typically focuses on volunteerism, launched get-out-the-vote efforts this year for the first time. Texting was a major component of their program, but Aria Finger, the CEO of DoSomething.org, says it was only effective because the nonprofit built a sustained digital relationship with members.
Every Tuesday, DoSomething.org texts over 3 million young people. Come election season, the nonprofit asked them to register to vote, and thanks to those efforts, over 100,000 new voters were registered. Finger insists the nonprofit is in it for the long haul. The midterms have passed, but DoSomething.org plans to keep registering new voters.
Rock the Vote was founded in 1990, before the internet and social media age, but today, both are essential to their engagement strategy. “We definitely believe in on-the-ground work, but we also reach young people where they are, a lot of times that’s online,” says Carolyn DeWitt, the president and executive director of Rock the Vote.
DeWitt says her main focus moving forward is to educate voters who may feel self-conscious about their understanding of the democratic system.
“In large part, youth turnout is lower because young voters are new voters. They are completely new to the process and have questions about the process and the consequences of registering and voting,” says DeWitt.
To address that issue, Rock the Vote relaunched Democracy Class, a free curriculum that schools, after-school programs, and community centers can use to teach young people the history and importance of voting. After students learn about voting, they are prompted to register to vote. Rock the Vote used the addresses of those who participated in the class to send customized election reminders about important dates and deadlines, as well as links to resources about polling locations and state policies.
Rock the Vote, DoSomething, and many other organizations also host registration platforms online. Yet, the election system remains archaic.
“We can order something on our phones, but in several states, you still can’t register to vote online and in some states, you actually have to show up in person to register to vote,” says DeWitt.
DeWitt also notes ID requirements in several states specifically target young voters. Having an ID handy might sound easy enough at first, but some states require voters have a photo ID that states their current address. Because young people move more frequently than other age groups, this poses a challenge. It also impacts students who live on college campuses.
Despite these obstacles and in light of the early estimates, there’s good reason to be hopeful about the future of youth turnout in midterm and presidential elections. The Center For American Progress reports that by the 2020 presidential election, 90 million millennials (people born between 1978 and 2000) will have the power to cast their votes.
“The youth generation is proving itself to be a very powerful force that demands to be heard and demands leaders to be responsive to their vision for a progressive and inclusive America, which is really important because by 2020, they will comprise nearly 40 percent of the electorate,” says DeWitt.
Although the percentage of eligible voters is large, the number within that group that votes is smaller. That tends to happen in every age group because the U.S. has a low voter turnout, but often, it’s a trend that impacts youth to a greater degree. The United States Election Project, which is run by a University of Florida professor, estimates 47 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the midterm elections on Tuesday.
March For Our Lives activist David Hogg put it best when he quoted Ariana Grande’s new hit song after the midterms. Young people made extraordinary efforts to register voters and get young people to the polls, and for that we say, “Thank you, next.”