youth turnout rose more than others’ turnout in 2018

(UCLA) On Feb. 11, Martin Wattenberg posted a Washington Post Monkey Cage article that received the headline, “In 2018, the turnout gap between young and old people didn’t really shrink at all.” He wrote,

The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University produced a widely quoted reportestimating that young Americans’ turnout had risen to the highest level it had ever recorded. This study led to headlines such as, “Watch Out 2020: Young Voters on the Rise” and “Young Voters Turned Out in Historic Numbers.

No doubt this CIRCLE study is correct in asserting that the turnout rate of young Americans increased markedly in 2018, compared with recent midterm elections. But so did the turnout rate of all other age groups.

The crucial question, then, is this: Did 2018’s massive increase in turnout reduce the wide gap between the turnout rates of young and old Americans?

No. Official records of participation in three states between 2006 and 2018 show that this was not the case.

Wattenberg is not wrong that everyone’s turnout rose in 2018, presumably because Donald Trump raised the perceived stakes of politics and nationalized congressional elections. But it is noteworthy that young people at least kept pace with the average increase, because low youth turnout in midterm elections had hitherto been a very stable pattern.

Furthermore, if you look carefully at the graphs in Wattenberg’s article, the upward slope for youth turnout is actually steeper than that for other age groups. Not vastly steeper, but notably so.

Now CIRCLE has used the voter files for the 17 states that have made them available so far to examine the relative gains in youth and older people’s turnout.

In 15 of the 17 states, youth turnout rose faster than older people’s turnout, meaning young voters expanded their share of the electorate. In certain closely contested races, the increase was dramatic–for instance, youth turnout more than doubled in Georgia and Montana.

In my view, a young-adult turnout rate of 31% is unacceptably low, but the only way to get to a reasonable level is by raising it one election at a time. A 10- or 11-point gain in one year is a very substantial step in the right direction, and it already made a difference to the results.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.