By Adam Eichen and Phoebe Wong
Young people don’t vote: here are the real consequences.
The 2018 midterms may be the most important election in many generations, with the potential to stem the rightward tide of our politics or enable it further. In fact, 62 percent of Americans surveyed believe this election to be the most important midterm in their lifetimes.
Politically motivated citizens are frantically trying to get out the vote to push their preferred candidate and party over the finish line in the upcoming days. Yet, despite early promising signs, there are good reasons to believe one key voting demographic — the 18 to 34 year-old youth — will continue to sit out elections.
While a notable number of young people have recently made their way into the political spotlight — grassroots movements such as Black Lives Matter, March for Our Lives, and the climate justice movement are replete with youth — voter turnout among coming-of-age generations has been abysmal for decades, and the divide between young and older voters continues to widen over time, with serious implications on our political landscape.
Young voters participate at a much lower rate than older age groups (Chart 1). Less than 50 percent of the 18–34 year old citizen population voted in the last two presidential elections, compared to over 70 percent of those 65 and over.
And when it comes to the non-presidential (midterm) elections, the numbers are even worse. While all age groups voted at a lower rate in midterm elections, less than one-third of the 18–34 age group voted during midterm years (turnout went as low as one-quarter in the 2014 midterm). Meanwhile, those 65 and over consistently turnout at rates of around 60 percent (Chart 2).
Because young voters have on average voted for Democratic presidential candidates more than Republican candidates over the past twenty years (Table 1), an increase in youth turnout could affect close races in the Democrats’ favor. Additionally, since voters 45 years or older preferred the Republican candidate in 4 of the last 5 elections, reducing their vote share would undoubtedly cut into Republicans’ victory margin.
The Democratic skew of young voters is further supported by their voting patterns in Congressional races, as illustrated in Table 2. In the national exit polls for House candidates, a majority of the 18 to 29-year-old group voted for a Democratic candidate every single election since 2000. A majority of voters 60 or older, on the other hand, voted for a Republican candidate in 6 of the past 9 congressional elections.
While it may not seem intuitive, young people have had the power to completely alter the course of our nation’s history; they just chose not to exercise that power.
We analyzed turnout statistics for every election since 2000, and found that had 18–34-year-olds voted at the same rate as those 65 and over, the election results in 2000 and 2016 would have been different, meaning neither George W. Bush nor Donald Trump would have become president.
How exactly would the election results from 2000 to 2016 be different if more young people voted?
To estimate how election results would have changed with higher youth turnout, we used the US Census Current Population Survey Voting and Registration Supplements and national exit polls for each election since 2000. We applied the average turnout rate (the share of citizen population who voted) of the oldest age group (65 year old or above) to the young voter group (18 to 34 year old) to estimate the additional vote cast by younger voters, and used the exit polls results to assign the additional votes to the major party candidates. The additional votes were then added to the actual vote counts to see if the election outcome would change.
The effects on the 2000 election are unsurprising, as that race came down to just 537 votes in Florida. With such a small margin of victory, any small change in Florida turnout in favor of Democratic candidate Al Gore would have given him the victory. The 2000 exit polls in Florida show slight youth preference for Gore (Table 3), and the 18–24 age group turned out at less than half the rate of the 65+ groups (Table 4); by adjusting youth turnout to that of 65 and over, we estimate that Gore would have won by almost 55,000 votes — giving Gore a decisive win in Florida (Table 5).
In 2016, as with 2000, young people could have swung the presidential election had they voted at the same rate as their grandparents’ generation.
In 2016, young voter participation rates were near a historic low. The registration rate of the citizen population age 18 to 34 was around 61 percent; while the 65 or older had a registration rate of 78 percent. 71 percent of the 65+ citizen population voted in 2016, compared to less than half of the 18–34 age group (Table 6).
Even though the total citizen population of the 18–34 age group exceeded the 65+ group by over 18 million, 1.4 million more votes were cast by the 65+ group in 2016 than the 18–34 group.
If the 18–34 age group voted at the same rate as the 65+ citizen population in 2016, over 14.3 million additional votes would have been cast.
And of these young voters, a large portion would have voted for Clinton given that the presidential election national exit polls show Clinton leading Trump by about 20 points among 18–29 voters; while Trump led Clinton by 3 to 8 points among the 40+ age groups (Table 7).
The increase in youth turnout would have added an additional 2 million votes to Clinton’s margin of victory in popular vote — from 2.86 million to almost 5 million more overall votes than Trump.
The 18–29 age group in all ten most competitive states in 2016 preferred Clinton to Trump, which means a higher turnout among young voters in these most competitive states would have provided Clinton a net gain in votes in those states (Table 8).
Using the CNN exit polls as a proxy for partisan preference among young voters in each state, we estimated that with the additional votes from higher youth turnout, Clinton would have won Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin, giving her an Electoral College victory with 287 electoral votes (Table 9).
The result is robust across several specifications: i) If the 18–34 group turnout in each state is set at the same rate as the 35+ voters in their respective states, the same three states, Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin would flip. ii) If the 18–34 group turnout in each state is adjusted to the same rate as the 65+ group nationally (at 70.9 percent), Florida, Pennsylvania, and Michigan would flip, which translate to 297 electoral votes for Clinton and 241 for Trump. iii) If we raise the turnout only for the 18–29 age group, Florida and Michigan would flip, which translate to 277 electoral votes for Clinton and 261 for Trump.
Beyond the presidential elections, higher youth turnout would have also altered the power dynamics in the United States House of Representatives by increasing the Democratic share of House seats.
Using the New York Times U.S. House Exit Poll as a proxy for partisan preference among young voters in each House election, we estimated how the national vote count for each major party would change if the 18–34 age group voted at the same rate as the average 65 and over voters in each election.
As with presidential candidates, young voters consistently preferred Democratic House candidates while older voters preferred Republican candidates. Therefore, additional votes from higher youth turnout would have boosted the share of total national votes for Democratic candidates in every single election since 2000.
The potential effect of this increased turnout is especially strong during midterm elections when less than a third of youth population voted. In the last two midterms (2014 and 2010) higher youth turnout would have increased Democratic candidates’ share of votes by about 2 points (Table 10).
Because of a combination of factors such as geographic clustering among like-minded voters and partisan gerrymandering, the Democratic party has become much more likely to win a minority share of total House seats even with a majority share of popular votes at the national level. A study conducted by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics estimates that with 50 percent of total major party votes, the Democratic party would win 204 House seats (or 47 percent of total seats) after the 2011 redistricting cycle, compared with 225 seats (or 52 percent of total seats) before 2011 (Table 11).
Using the results from the UVA study for predicted Democratic House seats based on the Democratic share of major party votes, we made some crude, back-of-envelope estimates on the number of seats the Democratic party would have won using the Democratic share of votes with higher youth turnout.
Even though Democratic candidates would have won a majority of popular votes in 2 elections (2012 and 2016) if the youth turnout rate was higher, it’s likely that the Democratic party would have still won a minority of House seats in 2016. But with 52 percent of total popular votes, the Dems had a decent chance of winning a majority of House seats in 2012, or at the very least reduce their seat deficit substantially (Table 12).
The main takeaway is that a higher youth turnout would have increased the share of total seats won by the Democratic party in every election, narrowing the seat margin between parties substantially in the last 4 elections.
Young people have the power to change history — IF THEY WOULD JUST VOTE
The evidence is clear: Had voters ages 18 to 34 turned out to vote from 2000 to 2016 at the same rates as those 65 and older, the course of history in the 21st century would have been very different. If George W. Bush did not become president in 2000, there would have been no Iraq War. With a President Gore, sensible environmental and climate change prevention policy might have long been a reality. President Obama would have had a wider margin of support in the House, potentially translating into a stronger Affordable Healthcare Act or perhaps student debt reform. And the benefits of avoiding President Trump, at this point, go without saying. No saber rattling about a useless wall, no emboldened Nazis in the streets, and no tax giveaways for the wealthiest at the expense of the rest of us.
This is not a call to blame young people. There are many reasons for low youth engagement, from restrictive voter laws — such as voter ID requirements and a dearth of accessible polling locations — that discriminate against younger voters. Many out-of-state college students have difficulties with absentee ballots, and entry-level workforce positions often have inflexible schedules. Moreover, the overwhelming influence of big money in politics understandably can lead to the belief that one’s voice does not matter and one’s vote does not count, deterring the incentive to vote.
These challenges that they face make it incumbent upon all of us to fight against youth voter suppression and make participation as easy and widely accessible as possible. This means fighting for pro-democracy reforms such as automatic and same-day registration, pre-registration for 16-year-olds, a new Voting Rights Act to prohibit discriminatory voter ID laws and poll closings, and robust public financing systems for state and federal offices.
Imagining what “could have been” is only worthwhile if it changes what we do in the future. We hope these numbers serve as a wake-up call to young voters who might still be thinking about staying home on Election Day next Tuesday.
Young people have the power to change the future. That power begins with casting a ballot.
More information about how to vote at VOTE.ORG.
Phoebe Wong is Executive Director of Equal Citizens.
Adam Eichen is Communications Strategist for Equal Citizens.
Acknowledgment: Special thanks to George Pillsbury, Senior Policy Advisor at Nonprofit VOTE, for advice on data sources and methodology and really helpful feedback.