Following last fall’s midterm elections, the headlines came fast and thick: Youth voters had delivered, with an estimated 31 percent casting a ballot, up from just 21 percent in the previous midterms. But those stories always came with a little asterisk: They were estimates, calculated off of exit poll results.
Since then, election researchers have been hard at work trying to look at actual, certified election results to confirm this pattern. Now we know that midterm youth voter turnout increased by double-digit percentage points in at least three states: Florida, Nevada, and Oklahoma.
In Florida, overall youth turnout, defined as the 18- to 29-year-old category, increased to 37 percent. That’s 15 percentage points higher than it was in the previous midterm elections, according to Daniel Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Florida who analyzed the data. Those figures were first reported by the Associated Press.
In Nevada, thanks to an exclusive analysis provided to Education Week, youth turnout in the 18-to-29 age group increased from 9.1 percent in the 2014 midterms to 33.1 percent in 2018, an increase of 24 percentage points. In Oklahoma, the increase for that same age category was up from 8.4 percent in 2014 to 21.2 percent, or nearly 13 percentage points. The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, part of the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, crunched those numbers for us.
Interpreting Youth Turnout Results
The tremendous amount of attention for the youth activism that propelled the March For Our Lives movement’s call to end to gun violence led to widespread expectations that youth voting would break records, especially for midterm elections, which normally draw lower turnouts than presidential elections. And Education Week‘s 2018 survey of first-time voters found that 60 percent promised they’d vote in the midterms.
That may have been an overly rosy assessment, but the new figures provide solid support that it did signal a phenomenon of sorts.
As the AP noted, Florida counties with large numbers of college students had especially high turnouts, with 49 percent of 18- to 21-year-olds voting in Leon County, the location of Florida State University, and 46.5 percent casting ballots in University of Florida’s Alachua County. Nearly 40 percent of that age group voted in Parkland’s Broward County and 39 percent in neighboring Miami-Dade County, according to Smith’s analysis, which was based directly off statewide voter files from the Florida secretary of state.
It is harder to know precisely what prompted those turnouts. The Parkland tragedy was clearly a factor, but Florida also had a number of historic contests, like the gubernatorial race in which Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum came within a hair’s breadth of becoming the state’s first black governor. (Republican Ron DeSantis ultimately claimed the prize.)
Notably, black youth turned out in much higher numbers than did white or Hispanic youth in Florida. More than 38 percent of black voters between the ages of 18 and 21 showed up at the polls, compared with 37.4 percent of young white voters and 33.5 percent of Hispanics, Smith’s data show. When you look at the subset of first-time voter registrations in 2018 among 18-to-29-year-olds, Smith said, the numbers are even higher: 42 percent turnout for white voters and 40.2 percent for black voters. (That analysis represents mostly first-time voters, but it also includes other people who moved to Florida and registered to vote there for the first time.)
“Is that Parkland? Excitement about this dynamic young candidate? I don’t know, but something went on with respect to young voters,” Smith concluded.
Messy Voter Data
Before we dig into the Nevada and Oklahoma results, a quick break in our programming for this public-service announcement: Many states do not collect as much information on voters as Florida does. (Some don’t collect much on voters’ age ranges, for instance.) Others don’t make their data readily available. In fact, Smith said, some states charge open-record fees for obtaining the election result files, which can quickly add up to tens of thousands of dollars because every individual voter can be considered a separate record.
This may seem kind of wonky, but it comes into play here because election analysts are often dependent on voter files produced by third-party vendors rather than files directly from states. Those vendors also use different modeling to predict things that aren’t collected by all states, like race or partisan affiliation. For its analysis, CIRCLE used vendor data to examine Nevada and Oklahoma youth-turnout rates.
Both states have a history of generally low voter turnout, said Kei Kawashima-Ginsburg, CIRCLE’s director who conducted the analysis for EdWeek. Nevertheless, she found that, in both states, youth voter turnout surged even as overall turnout also rose.
One way to picture what this means is to look at the proportional differences in the youth vote. In Nevada, there was a 77 percent increase in the total number of votes cast over 2014. But for youth, the increase was 265 percent, and the share of all votes cast by these young people went from about 6 percent in 2014 to 12 percent in 2018. In Oklahoma, total votes cast statewide increased by 44 percent. But for youth, the turnout increased by 153 percent, and the share of votes cast by youth rose from 6.4 percent in 2014 to 9.5 percent in 2018.
It’s again hard to conclude firmly why these patterns appeared. Nevada had a competitive statewide race, while Oklahoma did not, potentially one factor in the former state’s higher youth turnout.
Is It a Trend?
All that said, it is difficult to know whether this is the start of a youth renaissance when it comes to voting.
“Youth turnout was up across the country, and there are a multitude of factors that led to it this cycle,” Smith said. “Is it going to be the start of a trend? I would be highly skeptical. It takes a lot of effort to become habituated as a voter. Voting for the first time is a big help—but it’s no guarantee.”
What can help maintain that momentum, Kawashima-Ginsburg said, is for schools to keep elections front and center each year as they approach their civics programming, especially presenting the issues in a nonpartisan way and reviewing what ballots look like and how people vote (in person, through the mail, and so on).
“Teachers together bring in an enormous potential as trusted, knowledgeable local people that campaigns and interest groups can never achieve,” she said.
We agree: This past fall, as part of Education Week‘s Citizen Z project, we profiled three different teachers who made teaching about the midterm elections—in a nonpartisan way—a focus of one or more of their lessons. Their approaches varied but all were powerful: A Denver teacher used the state’s ballot initiatives as a jumping-off point. A Rochester, N.Y., teacher had her students create voter guides for their communities. And a Frederick County, Md., teacher’s students looked at an intensely local election for county sheriff and the issue of opioids.
Photo: First-time voter DeAntoine Wade, 19, votes in the
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.