Has a 'Youth Wave' Begun?

Author:Smith, Patricia
Position::NATIONAL
 
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Youth voter turnout surged in 2018. Will young people leverage their new political power to influence elections?

Maddy Scannell, a 19-year-old sophomore at Rice University in Houston, not only voted for the first time in the midterm elections, she also spent hours every week registering fellow students to vote and educating them about the kind of paperwork and ID they'd need to cast their ballots in Texas.

And in the weeks leading up to the November 6 midterms, she helped organize rides for students to early-voting locations.

"I think the election was a referendum on the direction our country is heading," Scannell says about why she and other students got so involved.

Traditionally, young people have voted in lower proportions than every other age group. But in the 2018 midterm elections, the voter turnout rate for those ages 18 to 29 shot up to 31 percent, from 21 percent in the 2014 midterm elections (see graph).

While that may not seem like a very high percentage, and it remains far below the 49 percent turnout for the electorate as a whole, it still sent a loud message, according to voting experts.

"It's huge," says Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of civic engagement at CIRCLE, a group at TUfts University that tracks youth voting trends. "It's the highest turnout we've seen since we started collecting data in 1994."

Preliminary numbers indicate that young voters also increased their share of the overall electorate to 13 percent from 11 percent, according to John Delia Volpe, who studies youth political engagement at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. This means that in a year when turnout was up among every age group, it increased even more among the youngest voters.

Fed Up With Division

Experts say this "youth wave" at the polls was due to a number of factors: Many young people are fed up with increasingly divisive politics and voted to express their dissatisfaction. And the school shooting last February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and the burst of student activism that followed it encouraged many young people to vote.

If youth turnout levels continue to rise in the coming years, it could have huge implications for our political system, experts say. For one thing, it could push candidates to pay more attention to young voters and the issues they care about, such as the environment, student debt, health care, and gun violence.

"There's been an assumption over time, shared by politicians and...

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