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The Youth Vote: Young Americans and the 2018 Midterm Elections


By Beth Swanson, Vice President of Strategy & Programs

One week out from what could be one of the most consequential midterm elections in modern American politics and there’s a key factor that we at the Joyce Foundation are watching with a close eye: The youth vote.

From marches to voter drives, the energy among young people across the country has been undeniable. The question remains, however, whether that activism will translate into increased participation at the polls.

Two national polls released this month and supported by the Joyce Foundation found that roughly 35 percent of young voters (ages 18-29) say they are very likely if not certain to vote in the November 6 elections. If that figure holds, it would mean that a record number of young voters will turn out for the midterms, an outcome that could have far-reaching implications for our work.

For Joyce, questions surrounding the youth vote are about more than political prognostication. Our 2018-2020 grant making is focused on the next generation in the Great Lakes region because demographics show that young people of color will be the future of our region. Strategies that help these young people succeed in education, careers and community are core to our shared success as a society.

As such, we want to know what policy issues younger voters care about, and the extent to which they believe they can gain greater control over their destiny through voting, activism, and other forms of civic engagement. Joyce-supported polls taken by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) of Washington, D.C. and SocialSphere of Cambridge, Massachusetts attempted to take the pulse of young voters. The PRRI poll focused broadly on civic engagement; SocialSphere primarily examined young Americans’ attitudes about gun violence.

Noteworthy findings from the two surveys:

What Young Voters Care About

  • Sixty-eight (68) percent of young adults rank school shootings as the most important issue for America’s future, followed by access to higher education (64 percent), healthcare reform (64 percent), and job creation (62 percent). (SocialSphere)
  • There is strong support (70 percent) among young Americans for stricter gun laws, even among gun owners. (SocialSphere)

Who Is Engaging

  • Young women are more likely than young men to report high levels of civic and political engagement (24 percent vs.12 percent). (PRRI)

Optimistic Undercurrents

  • Pessimism about the state of the nation is pervasive among all age groups, with more than 70 percent of respondents reporting negative emotions (angry, sad, fearful) when they think about what’s going on in the country. However, African-Americans are less pessimistic than white or Hispanic Americans about the potential to overcome political differences and solve problems at the national level. And young African Americans are even more optimistic (50 percent) than other groups about the possibility of national unity to address pressing issues in the country. (PRRI)
  • People feel a lot better about action at the local level. Across all demographic groups in the PRRI survey, majorities of Americans agree that if you’re looking to make change happen, it makes more sense to get involved in local issues than national issues.

Among the many interesting findings from the two surveys, one struck me as the most hopeful: People who said they were encouraged by others to be active were two to three times more likely to participate in civic and political life than those who were not encouraged.

What does this tell us? That people will vote when prompted, young people especially.  A couple of recent examples bear this out.

Roughly 400,000 Snapchat users registered to vote at the prodding of the social media service popular with teens and young adults. And then there’s Taylor Swift, who singlehandedly caused a 160,000-person spike in voter registrations with an Instagram post letting fans know how she would vote in Tennessee’s U.S. Senate race and one of its House contests.

Young Americans, particularly young women and people of color, are already engaging on the critical policy issues of our times –safety, education, health care, jobs – that lie at the core of the health of our nation. But we can’t take their voter participation for granted. If past is prologue, we could just as likely see a big-drop off between activism and action at the polls. In the lead-up to the 2014 midterms, for example, 38 percent of younger Americans said they’d vote that November but just 20 percent followed through.

Many signs point to higher levels of youth voter engagement this time around – but research also says they need a nudge.

There is clear and significant value in encouraging young people to get more engaged in civic life. And there’s proof that prompting them to vote produces results. 

Whatever your politics, that’s a clear call to action for us all. Rather than continue to wonder, “will they vote?”, encourage and empower these young voices to engage - on November 6 and beyond. Help turn a ripple of youth activism into a voter wave.