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Why so many young people showed up on Election Day

Young voter turnout surged in response to key issues like the pandemic, racism, and climate change.

People gather for a “Voting and Democracy celebration” at the Philadelphia Convention Center on November 6.
Jemal Countess/Getty Images for MoveOn

Millennials and Gen Zers may be branded the “distractible” generations, but they did not lose focus this election. Young people across the country turned out at a higher rate than 2016, playing a key role in tight races.

A November 6 analysis from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University shows that youth voter turnout (ages 18 to 29) surged by around 8 percent this year compared to 2016. Based on the conservative end of CIRCLE’s preliminary estimate, 53 percent of eligible youth voters cast votes in this election versus 45 percent in 2016.

The youth vote also had more weight overall. A higher percentage of total votes came from youth: CIRCLE estimates the share to be 17 percent this year compared to 16 percent in 2016.

“What we’re seeing from young voters is they’re becoming more reliable, and I think they’re becoming more powerful,” said Heather Greven, the communications director for NextGen America, an advocacy group focused on youth voter engagement.

This year’s voter turnout across all age groups may be the highest in over 100 years, according to a preliminary estimate from University of Florida political scientist Michael McDonald that shows over 160 million people may have voted.

And given young voters’ clear preference for former Vice President Joe Biden, the leap in their participation may have made a difference for his win in key swing states.

Young voters helped carry Biden to victory

The map below, created by CIRCLE, shows how the election would look if only young people voted. Biden would have won the election by a much wider margin.

Map of the US showing the election results if only young people voted. CIRCLE, Tisch College of Civic Life, Tufts University

While young voters favored Trump in a handful of states, nationwide 62 percent of young voters cast their vote for Biden compared to 35 percent for Trump, according to estimates from the New York Times.

Greven said NextGen America had concerns initially about Biden’s candidacy because he didn’t generate a lot of youth excitement in the primaries. But she said that his focus on certain issues, such as climate change, eventually helped differentiate him for young voters. “They see that the issues that matter the most to them are on the ballot, and I think four years of Trump being in office is also a really good primer to get young people excited,” she said.

In some critical Electoral College battleground states, CIRCLE’s estimates indicate that youth votes may have made the difference for Democrats. For instance, in Georgia an estimated 21 percent of votes came from young people, who supported Biden over Trump by 18 percent, netting Biden 187,000 votes.

Young Black voters supported Biden by a particularly wide margin in Georgia (90 percent) and nationwide (86 percent). As the chart below shows, young people of color as a whole favored Biden significantly more than young white voters.

Chart showing Black, asian, latino, and white youth voter turnout CIRCLE, Tisch College of Civic Life, Tufts University

What issues drove youth to the polls this year?

The chart below shows that young Trump and Biden voters had different priorities. Young Biden voters ranked Covid-19 as their top issue while the economy topped the list for young Trump voters. Young Biden voters were also more likely to see racism and climate change as their key issue.

For young Black voters, racism was as important as the pandemic. Racism was the top issue for 35 percent and the pandemic ranked at the top for 34 percent, according to CIRCLE’s analysis.

Charting showing the what young voters rank as their top issues CIRCLE, Tisch College of Civic Life, Tufts University

CIRCLE’s deputy directory Abby Kiesa said their analysis shows the pandemic may have catalyzed the youth vote. A CIRCLE survey from May and June showed that 40 percent of young people were following the news more due to the pandemic, and they were more likely to be people who were the most affected economically.

“In some ways we believe that the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic had a little bit of a politicizing impact on young people because of that,” said Kiesa in a press briefing. According to CIRCLE’s new analysis, “paying more attention to news during the pandemic and suffering economic hardship because of COVID-19 are associated with interest in engaging with electoral politics.”

The survey also showed that almost 80 percent of young people reported that the pandemic showed how much politicians’ decisions affect their everyday lives.

Biden’s approach to these key issues also helped draw youth support, according to Greven. “The Joe Biden campaign was really smart on issues with young people,” she said. “I think their climate plan had a lot do do with winning folks over.” A poll of youth voters conducted by Change Research in early October showed that talking about Biden’s climate plan was the best way to boost enthusiasm among less motivated voters.

Many advocacy groups — for voting rights, climate change, and other issues — also helped rally young voters to the polls. The Sunrise Movement, which is focused on uniting young people to fight the climate crisis, said it reached out to hundreds of thousands of voters in Pennsylvania and other states:

Future youth voting patterns aren’t set in stone, but Greven sees the youth vote as a growing political force that politicians should pay more attention to going forward. “If you’re on the GOP side, if you’re on the wrong side of the issues for young voters, you’re just going to run out of votes at a certain point.”

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