On the morning after Election Day, results were inconclusive about who would serve as the next U.S. president. But the contentious contest did produce at least one clear victor: young voters.
Voters ages 18 to 29 turned out to the polls in force in 2020, making up about 17 percent of voters across the country, according to tallies as of Nov. 4.
That’s a 1 percent increase over the 2016 election. And in a year with historically high election participation, that’s “pretty significant,” because it means young people held their own and possibly even gained ground compared to their older counterparts, says Abby Kiesa, deputy director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), a national research center on young people’s civic participation.
A deeper dive into the data shows that young voters took advantage of absentee and early voting in “huge numbers,” Kiesa says. And so far, CIRCLE estimates that nearly half of all eligible young people voted in the tightest races in the country—battleground states including Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin.
“There were just so many indicators of youth engagement in 2020,” Kiesa says.
After years of relatively lackluster youth participation rates in presidential races, this year’s high turnout is a big win for educators and civic-participation organizations that strive to empower young citizens to exercise their right to vote. Experts say it’s also a testament to the work that young people themselves have done to encourage their peers to cast ballots. Examples include a young Navajo woman organizing voters to travel to polling places on horseback in the Southwest; students successfully petitioning to have classes canceled on Election Day at American University in Washington D.C.; and college student athletes across the country winning the day off from the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
With the pandemic interrupting life for so many young people this year, many voter outreach efforts had to move online. That shift seems to have been successful, and it may prove promising even after the health crises subsides.
“There was an incredible pivot among youth organizations to reach a wide diversity of young people online, over the summer especially,” Kiesa says.
Who Are Young Voters?
Young voters are not a consistently defined cohort. The phrase sometimes refers to people ages 18 to 24—currently, members of Gen Z—and sometimes extends up to age 29. No matter the age cutoff, however, the current crop of young people eligible to vote is more racially and ethnically diverse and is pursuing higher education at a higher rate than young people of earlier generations.
Young voters are frequently conflated with college students, but that is not accurate, says Nancy L. Thomas, director of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University.
That’s because college students are not all young, and not all young people are in college. Of the 10 million people in the institute’s database of college student enrollments and voting records, for example, 72 percent are ages 18 to 25.
And according to CIRCLE analysis of recent census data, only about 35 percent of 18- to 23-year-olds are enrolled in higher education. The distinction matters, Kiesa says, because “young people on college campuses are much more likely to be targeted by candidates and campaigns.”
In past elections, young American citizens have cast fewer ballots than their older counterparts. That’s led to “general characterization of young people as apathetic, disengaged, unwilling to participate and show up,” says Jenna Yuan, director of communications at Student Voice, a nonprofit that helps high school and college students participate in education policy decisions.
But political science research reveals that those descriptors are wrong.
“We find that young people are incredibly interested. They're incredibly motivated to participate in politics. They care about who is elected,” Sunshine Hillygus, a professor of political science at Duke University, said in a recent interview for the EdSurge Podcast.
However, young people do face impediments to voting. These include policy hurdles such as registration laws, suppression tactics including banning mobile voting sites on college campuses, and “stage-in-life barriers,” like the fact that young people are more likely to be distracted from their intentions, explained Hillygus, co-author of the new book “Making Young Voters.”
Another common myth—and one that sometimes fuels attempts to suppress young people’s voter participation—is that young people reliably vote as a bloc. In reality, young people are not especially loyal to political parties, Hillygus said.
Preliminary results from the 2020 election did show much stronger overall youth support for the Democrat candidate: 61 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 voted for Joe Biden, while 36 percent voted for Donald Trump, according to CIRCLE’s analysis of AP VoteCast data from The Associated Press as of 4 p.m. ET on Nov. 4.
But candidate support varied significantly by state. For example, in Alabama, 52 percent of young voters supported Trump, compared to just 21 percent of young voters in California.
Putting Issues of Interest First
This fall’s high turnout among young voters built on their strong showing in the 2018 midterm elections. In those races, youth voter participation and college student voter participation doubled compared to the 2014 midterms, according to data from CIRCLE and the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education.
That dramatic increase was due to several factors, according to Thomas, including a backlash against the Trump administration, increased higher ed administrator interest in supporting student voting, and a rise in issue-focused activism among young people, especially on college campuses.
“In the past three or four years, there have been more activists than I’ve seen in a long time,” Thomas says. “And activists vote at double the rate of non-activists.”
Among the issues that matter to many young people are racial justice, climate change and gun-violence prevention, says Yuan of Student Voice. She adds that many students care about education policies such as policing in schools, curriculum diversity and equitable funding.
“Especially in issues of education, students are often the first and only people who notice issues that pop up,” Yuan says. “They have genuine expertise in that.”
Helping young people understand how voting enables them to affect the policies they care about has been key to getting them to the polls, according to Kiesa.
“That is one of the things that can really connect young people—their everyday lives, their lived experiences—to talking about the democratic process,” she says. “And it’s also one of the things we see youth voter engagement organizations doing as well—is focusing on the issues young people care about.”
Successful Digital Outreach
Of course, organizers hoping to get young people to vote in 2020 had to contend with an unexpected and seemingly overwhelming roadblock: the COVID-19 pandemic.
The health crisis changed the logistics of voting in many jurisdictions, which made efforts to educate young people even more important than usual, even as the tried-and-true methods of reaching them were interrupted, Thomas says. The pandemic also threatened to disrupt one of the motivations young people have to vote: the influence of their peers.
“One of the things that’s lost is this social aspect to voting,” Thomas says. “Students vote because their peers vote. They go to vote in groups.”
For the New Voters Project, a campaign of the Student PIRGs network, pandemic conditions meant reimagining their in-person, on-campus efforts—which date back to the early 1980s—to educate college students about registration and voting.
“In early spring, we had to figure out, what are the best ways to still have this peer-to-peer approach but adapt it to the virtual world?” recalls Manny Rin, national director of the New Voters Project.
Instead of posting up around campus with clipboards and popping into physical classrooms to spread the word about how to vote, student leaders organized digital hangouts, secured invitations from faculty to make announcements during remote class sessions and gathered virtually on Zoom calls for phonathons—including one that was Halloween-themed, with students wearing costumes on camera and making calls while all listening to the same spooky music.
“It’s a different feel on a classic campaign tactic,” Rin says. “In some ways, it’s allowed more people to get involved because it is virtual.”
This year, the New Voters Project recruited more student interns and volunteers than ever before: more than 3,500 people across 100 campuses in 17 states, according to Rin. He observed college communities rising to the challenge of getting students ready to vote in a pandemic, noting that some professors and staff eagerly committed to using their communication channels to send get-out-the-vote messages. For example, around the primary election deadlines, some University of California institutions sent out all-campus emails about voter registration.
“Being able to reach out to that number of students all at once has been really effective,” Rin says.
Student Voice has shifted much its student organizing online, as well. The town halls it hosted this year for candidates in school board elections were all held virtually. And more than 100 students regularly show up to its webinars about how to advocate for change in local school districts.
“We’ve made great use of premium Zoom and giving students access to that,” Yuan says.
Digital outreach about voting doesn’t have to come from campaigns or organizations to be effective, though. Social media sharing among young people is “pretty critical” too, Kiesa says.
“We rely a whole lot on campaigns and parties because they have the most money, but they are incentivized to reach young people who are already registered to vote or who have already voted. Millions of young people who turn 18 every year, they are being ignored, especially young people who are not on college campuses,” Kiesa says. “The digital space has the potential to reach young people who are not being targeted.”