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2018 Youth Turnout Estimates

This week's Friday study comes from The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) and a collaboration between Nonprofit VOTE and the U.S. Elections Project.  CIRCLE has been releasing 2018 midterm youth turnout estimates for multiple states across America.  Nonprofit VOTE partners with America’s nonprofits to help the people they serve participate and vote.

Recently, CIRCLE released data on 17 additional states, including states with key 2018 races like Texas and Tennessee, and potential 2020 battlegrounds like Michigan and Virginia.  Both individually and taken together, these turnout estimates confirm and add context to the overall trend of higher youth participation in the 2018 election.  

Across the 34 states for which we have now released estimates, we find:

  • Compared to 2014, youth voter turnout increased in every single state. In 32 of the 34 states, youth turnout increased by at least 7 percentage points, and in 27 of them it increased by double digits.
  • In the majority of states (26 out of 34), the increase in youth turnout exceeded the increase in turnout among the general (all ages) electorate.

Why Look at State Turnout?

Youth turnout—the percentage of young people who are citizens of the US, ages 18-29, who cast a ballot—can differ dramatically from state to state, and can either follow or run counter to national trends. State turnout can be affected by competitive statewide races (or the cumulative effect of more than one close election), facilitative state election policies, a state’s civic culture, the presence of strong youth civic engagement infrastructure (that can, for example activate deliberate outreach on ballot measures), and other factors.

The 2018 Midterm elections were historical – with voter turn spiking to levels we haven’t seen in a century. But behind and beyond that success story is the bigger story – the vast differences in voter turnout driven in large part by states’ various voting policies. The new America Goes to the Polls report, a collaboration between Nonprofit VOTE and the U.S. Elections Project, digs deep into the data to not only rank all 50 states by their official voter turnout numbers but examine how policies like Same Day Registration, Automatic Voter Registration and Vote at Home have made a real impact on the U.S. electorate.

When measured against the voting-eligible population, voter turnout was 50.3%, the highest midterm turnout since 1914 and the largest increase from a previous midterm in U.S. history. Even states without competitive statewide elections saw record turnout, which makes clear that national factors, including support and opposition to the Trump presidency, were driving voters to the polls.

But beneath this record turnout is a more important and informative story – a story this report seeks to tell. Despite the record turnout nationwide, vast differences in voter turnout between states persisted – differences driven largely by election-related policies.

The top 10 states – those with voter turnout averaging 61% – had policies that promote greater participation in our democracy. Seven of the top 10 states had Same Day Registration (SDR) that lets voters register or fix a problem with their registration when they vote. Three of the top ten with Vote at Home (VAH) in place sent all registered voters their ballots that can be mailed in or dropped off at a nearby secure vote site. A relatively new policy, Automatic Voter Registration (AVR), made its appearance in the top 10 and helped many states set registration records.

By comparison, the bottom 10 states had turnout averaging just over 43%, nearly 20 points lower. The vast majority (eight of ten) went to the other extreme by requiring voters to be registered four weeks ahead of Election Day.  None of the bottom 10 states had policies like VAH or AVR known to make voting easier, more convenient, and help improve the accuracy of voter rolls.

While the historic turnout of the 2018 elections has captured the nation’s attention, the interplay between public policy and voter turnout in each state contains far more valuable lessons for policy makers and advocates across the country. By lifting up these differences and the policies that drive them, we hope this report provides a road map for strengthening our democracy and ensuring that more eligible voters participate and vote… year-after-year.

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