CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement)
conducts research on the civic and political engagement of young Americans.
The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement

Final Analysis of State-by-State Youth Voter Turnout Shows Increases Across the Country

May 20th, 2019
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Last month, CIRCLE released 2018 midterm youth turnout estimates for 34 states in two separate posts: here and here. Today, we are publishing youth turnout estimates for the last eight states for which reliable data are available[1]. 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 42 states for which we have now released estimates, we find:

  • Compared to 2014, youth voter turnout increased in every single state. In 40 of the 42 states—including all eight for which we have newly released estimates—youth turnout increased by at least 7 percentage points, and in 31 of them it increased by double digits.
  • Two states from this final group, New Jersey and California, join Virginia, Minnesota, and Montana to form a select group of states that registered youth turnout increases of more than 20 percentage points.
  • In the majority of all states we examined (32 out of 42), 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.

State by State Turnout Estimates

As in all previous states we had looked at, youth turnout increased in every single one of the eight states for which we release new estimates today. Among this new group of states (in green below), New Jersey had the highest youth turnout (33%) and experienced the biggest change between 2014 and 2018: an increase of 22 percentage points. In half of these eight states with newly released data, youth voter turnout increased by more than 15 points.

In addition, in six of these eight states young people also “outpaced” the turnout increases among the rest of the voting population. Added to the states for which we had previously released data, that makes 32 out of 42 states where the turnout increase was higher among youth than among the overall electorate.

*For information about the data from these states that may influence our youth turnout estimates, see our previous post.

Spotlight on California, Arizona, and West Virginia

Here’s a look at some states that experienced strong youth turnout increases, and some of the factors that may have led to higher participation:


Despite there being no competitive gubernatorial or Senate races in California, young people still went to the polls in significant numbers and increased their turnout rate by 20 percentage points: from 10% in 2014 to 30% in 2018. Their surge in participation likely helped Democrats flip seven seats in California en route to taking over control of the U.S. House of Representatives; exit polls found that 7 in 10 young Californians voted for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom over his Republican opponent John Cox, which suggests a level of support (mirroring young voters’ 35-point preference for Democratic House candidates nationally) that likely aided downballot Democrats in the state.

Indeed, in some closely watched swing districts previously held by Republicans, Democratic challengers emerged with key victories. In California’s 25th Congressional District, Katie Hill—a political novice who ran what Vice News described as “the most millennial campaign ever”—edged out incumbent GOP Rep. Steve Knight. In CA-10, Democrat Josh Harder defeated Republican incumbent Jeff Denham by just 4 percentage points. In two other extremely close races that weren’t decided until weeks after Election Day, T.J. Cox flipped Republican David Valadao’s seat in CA-21, and Gil Cisneros edged out Young Kim in CA-39.

Some of California’s electoral laws and administrative practices may deserve credit for facilitating youth voting. For example, the state allows 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote. In addition, California’s passed the New Motor Voter Act in 2015, which empowered the Department of Motor Vehicles to send information about its voting-eligible customers to the Secretary of State, which would automatically register them to vote. The Public Policy Institute of California estimated that this law added about two million new voters to the rolls in the first year after passage.


Not only did youth turnout rise by 16 percentage points in Arizona—a state that received national attention due to its highly competitive Senate race—but the total share of votes cast by youth nearly doubled (from just 6.3% in 2014 to 11.5% in 2018), demonstrating an increase in young people’s influence on the election. After Republican incumbent Jeff Flake announced that he would not seek reelection in 2018, Democrats viewed this historically red state as a possible pickup, especially in light of Arizona’s rising Hispanic population and Hillary Clinton’s relatively strong showing in 2016. Inspire US, a student-driven, nonpartisan nonprofit focused on registering youth to vote in high schools has had a multi-year presence in Arizona. This type of work, which has historically trailed efforts focused on college students, is critical in reaching youth early, building infrastructure in the voter engagement sector, and institutionalizing teaching about elections and voting.

Before the election, CIRCLE’s Youth Electoral Significance (YESI) rated Arizona 9th among the top states where youth had the potential for especially high influence in a Senate race. Ultimately, in a race that wasn’t called until days after election night, Democratic Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema just edged out her House colleague, Republican Martha McSally, by just 2.4 percentage points, becoming the first Democrat Arizona sent to the Senate since 1988. A competitive race, combined with intentional outreach to younger voters, can increase turnout and affect electoral outcomes.

West Virginia

The youth turnout rate nearly doubled in West Virginia, though it failed to exceed the uptick in the overall (all ages) electorate’s voting rate, indicating that there was a high increase in voter participation across the board in the state. CIRCLE’s YESI rated West Virginia 7th among Senate races where young people had the potential to influence the outcome, in part because Democratic incumbent Joe Manchin was expected to face a tough challenge in a deep-red state which Donald Trump won in 2016 by a margin of 42 points. Manchin ended up winning reelection by less than 4 percentage points (under 20,000 votes); it’s likely that young voters had a significant impact on the outcome. West Virginia allows automatic voter registration and pre-registration for 17-year-olds, which may have facilitated youth participation.

Background on State by State Turnout Data

Data available about young voters has increased a great deal over the past five years, but much of it takes months to update after an election. One significant advance is the presence of vendors who aggregate state voter file data from public sources into a national voter file (e.g. Catalyst, which we use). Starting in 2012, CIRCLE began using a national voter file to calculate state-by-state, district-by-district and county-by-county youth voter turnout estimates for presidential and midterm elections. These data get updated as each state fully updates their electronic files and that can take months. While we still use the Census Current Population Survey (CPS) Voting Supplement for some subgroup analysis and to view long-term trends, which voter files do not allow, we have used voter file data in our YESI, RAYSE Index (county data) and ongoing analyses as much as possible.

CIRCLE uses a number of sources to estimate various turnout figures.  For youth turnout, CIRCLE uses national aggregated voter file from Catalist, LLC. to get data on the number of votes cast by people who are ages 18-29 on the Election Day.  We use data provided by the United States Election Project at University of Florida to get data on total number of ballots cast in 2014 and 2018 General Election. We derive citizen population estimates from the American Community Survey 1-year state estimate.  As in any turnout calculation method, a number of factors can result in slight variations in the turnout estimate.

[1] In several states, age data reported by the state and/or its various localities is not comprehensive enough to allow us to produce a reliable estimate of youth voter turnout.

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