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

Voter Turnout of Youth Aged 18-19 Shows States Having Varied Success at Growing Voters

September 19th, 2019
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In August, we wrote about the need for a paradigm shift from solely mobilizing voters at election time to a framework for building election education and engagement we call Growing Voters. That shift is critical because, as we’ve shared, youth voter turnout among 18- and 19-year-olds is regularly below that of their slightly older peers, and therefore below the average for all youth—defined here as ages 18-29. That means we’re missing an opportunity to instill civic habits early in life and to tackle disparities in access before they become harder to address, and youth are missing out on what should be an exciting milestone when they turn 18.

Of course, turnout (for all ages) varies across the country, and we believe that a state’s 18-19 turnout rate is an indicator of whether or not it is succeeding at Growing Voters as a strategy for expanding and diversifying youth electoral engagement. In other words, when a state is successful at Growing Voters, its age 18-19 youth should vote at average-or-better rates, and there should be a smaller gap between their turnout rates and that of all youth. This analysis explores that question by examining statewide turnout among 18- and 19- year-olds in the 2018 midterms. We consider what could explain the disparities, look at notable outliers, and highlight the need for more research and knowledge-sharing about what works to grow voters in a range of communities.

Turnout Among Youth Aged 18-19 Varied Widely from State to State

Youth voter turnout regularly differs by state and even within a state, as we saw with 18 to 29-year-old statewide turnout in 2018, and in our analysis of county turnout in 2016.

In 2018, the national voter turnout for youth aged 18-19 was 23%, but state turnout rates ranged widely from 13.3% to 37.1% in the 42 states for which data is available.[1] Six states significantly exceeded the national turnout with age 18-19 turnout above 30%: Colorado, Oregon, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, and Washington. The states farthest below the national rate (more than 8 percentage points below) were: Arkansas, Idaho, Illinois, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island.[2]

In all but one of the states for which data is available, the turnout rate of these youngest eligible voters trailed that of all youth aged 18-29; only in Nevada, did the age 18-19 turnout rate exceeded that of youth overall. The average gap between the turnout rates for ages 18-19 and ages 18-29 was 6 percentage points, but it ranged from 0.2 percentage point in New York to 14.9 percentage points in Maryland.

Building a Growing Voters Ecosystem

No single factor correlates perfectly with much higher youth turnout. As we have found in the past, multiple interconnected elements need to add up in order to create an election engagement infrastructure that facilitates significant increases in early participation among youth.

However, because many of these influential elements can be absent or underutilized in different states, electoral competitiveness is often the most influential factor in shaping youth turnout. That was borne out in 2018, when states with highly competitive races like Nevada, Texas, and Florida saw above average turnout among 18- and 19-year-olds, and smaller-than-average gaps between their turnout rate and that of youth aged 18-29. That said, a close election doesn’t always mean automatic increases, because voters need to be mobilized through existing infrastructure (like sustainable civic and youth organizations) and systematic supports (like well-implemented pre-registration). As a result, we also see a couple of states with competitive contests in 2018 where turnout is not dramatically higher, likely because they have not been historically competitive or because of undeveloped systems or underutilized infrastructure to facilitate youth electoral engagement.

Based on the research about youth voting and youth civic development, we highlight several ways to utilize existing, systemic infrastructure to facilitate engagement. When thoughtfully designed, implemented, and supported, they are likely to contribute to Growing Voters, reduce barriers and increase engagement by 18- and 19-year-olds in ways that will persist as they get older:

Facilitative Voting & Registration Policies

For many years, CIRCLE has been tracking the development of state voting policies and their influence on youth registration and turnout. Of particular interest are laws that facilitate more youth participation (pre-registration, online voter registration, automatic voter registration) and one that may impede it (strict photo-ID laws). By examining the states where these various policies have been passed, on average, we found the following effects on youth voter registration and turnout:

  • Online voter registration: A positive correlation between enacted state policy and turnout of youth aged 18-19, and a minor positive effect on the registration rate of that same age group
  • Strict Photo ID laws: A negative correlation with the voter turnout of youth aged 18-29, especially among youth of color
  • Pre-registration: A minor correlation with turnout for age 18-19 youth, but only if pre-registration is available for both 16- and 17-year-olds (as opposed to just for 17-year-olds)

Youth-Centered Election Administration at the State and Local Levels

In our initial introduction to Growing Voters we wrote about the promise of youth-centered local election administration. This can include materials and processes informed by youth experiences, having teens serve as election judges/poll workers—which many states now allow—and partnerships with local youth organizations. This can also include state-level programs and resources from a Secretary of State or Board of Elections that can contribute to helpful state-specific materials and a culture of voting.

Substantive k-12 Civic Education Policies

In our extensive research on the relationship between civic education and voting in the 2012 election, we found that teaching about voting increased the likelihood of students (self-reported) voting when they turn 18 by 40%. While more research on how districts and schools institutionalize this practice is needed, we know that there are ways to implement this beyond specific lesson plans. When schools and districts commit to teaching about elections and voting, it can reduce negative messages about politics and youth voice.

When implemented and properly supported statewide, a mandatory k-12 civics course  that incorporates effective instructional practices can build young people’s civic knowledge, skills, and efficacy. Research has also shown that a civics test that is a graduation requirement can positively influence subsequent political engagement. (Importantly, this research did not include analysis of requirements to pass the American citizenship test, which some states have proposed or used as a civics test; see here for CIRCLE’s analysis.)

Relatedly, we recently found that 27 states now have language in their state codes that encourages, supports, and/or in a few cases requires a school or a local elections office to facilitate voter registration (and occasionally some basic education about voting, separate from course requirements and curricular standards) in high schools. We will publish a more detailed analysis of these state codes in the coming months.

Policy Implementation, Accountability, and Funding

The efforts and policies described above are only at their most effective in facilitating youth participation when they are implemented deliberately, with an eye toward quality and equity, and with mechanisms in place for evaluation and accountability. As such, most of these laws and initiatives require adequate funding for training, professional development, and/or staff time.

Supporting Diverse Local Youth Leadership and Voices

A profoundly important element and thread in every element of Growing Voters is supporting youth leadership and voice in a community. Many of the educational and administrative practices we’ve mentioned can advance this goal: whether having teens as poll workers or using pedagogical practices centered on the concerns and ideas of youth. But just as important are community-based opportunities that can be led by youth, and that often provide opportunities for young people, especially those who have been marginalized, to develop critical consciousness and feel empowered to act.

Notable States: Growing Voters in Colorado and Nevada

The one state where age 18-19 turnout exceeded age 18-29 turnout was Nevada. The state has has implemented many elements key to Growing Voters: a required yearlong civics course, online voter registration, pre-registration, young people who serve as poll workers, and no photo ID requirement to cast a ballot. There were also two competitive statewide races in Nevada in 2018, which frequently leads to increased voter mobilization.

Colorado has long been building a strong youth engagement infrastructure to facilitate increased participation. In 2018, turnout among 18 to 29-year-olds in the state was 41%, the third-highest in the country, and for youth aged 18-19 turnout was 34%.

The state boasts many of the facilitative laws and policies we described above, including automatic voter registration, pre-registration, online registration, teens and youth serving as poll workers, and a state code that supports voter registration in schools through the following language:

  • “Public high school principals may designate or serve as a deputy registrar.  The high school deputy registrar may register students, school employees, or any person eligible to vote, but only when the school is open for classes or community functions.”
  • “The county clerk and recorder shall train the high school deputy registrars and provide them with sufficient registration materials.”

Other states have similarly strong policies for youth engagement in place, but these did not translate into substantially higher voting rates for youth aged 18-19. That was the case, for example, in Connecticut, Kentucky, Rhode Island, Vermont, and West Virginia, consistently “blue” or “red” states that did not have competitive statewide races in 2018. In such states, building up a strong youth engagement infrastructure—within and outside of institutions—is arguably even more crucial so that turnout rates among the youngest eligible voters do not dip lower. It also underlines how much young people are motivated by their vote making a difference, and the ongoing need to work toward a robust set of organizations and institutions that encourage, instead of deterring, participation by youth.

[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.

[2] CIRCLE uses a number of sources to estimate various turnout figures.  For youth turnout, CIRCLE uses the national aggregated voter file from Catalist, LLC. to get data on the number of votes cast by people who are ages 18-19 and 18-29. We derive citizen population estimates from the American Community Survey 1-year state estimate. As with any turnout calculation method, a number of factors can result in slight variations in turnout estimates.

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