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Young U.S. voter turnout surges, but challenges linger

PoliticsNov 02, 2018 06:21AM ET
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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Students wait in line to cast their ballot during early voting at an outdoor polling location on the University of Irvine campus in Irvine

By Colleen Jenkins

(Reuters) - Early turnout by young voters has surged ahead of Tuesday's congressional midterm elections, powered by gains in states whose voters are pivotal to Democrats' chances of winning back control of the U.S. Congress.

Young American activists, angry over President Donald Trump and a wave of deadly school shootings, had vowed to get their peers to the polls in unprecedented numbers. The initial turnout, along with the results of opinion polls, higher registration rates and increased absentee ballot requests, suggests their political enthusiasm has not waned.

"In fact, as we get closer, I think it’s only likely to increase," said John Della Volpe, polling director at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics.

That could be good news for Democrats, who need a younger, more diverse electorate to win some of their toughest races. Young voters are more likely to be Democratic, and Reuters/Ipsos polling has found young Democrats are more likely than young Republicans to say they are certain to vote this year.

Initial estimates modeled from survey responses, voter registrations and other data show huge increases in early turnout of voters ages 18-29 compared with the last midterm elections in 2014.

In Republican-leaning Texas and Georgia, early and absentee voting by people under 30 has increased by more than 400 percent, according to TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm tracking early voting nationwide.

In Florida and Arizona, ballots cast by young voters are up 131 percent and 217 percent, respectively, from 2014, TargetSmart's analysis shows.

In comparison, among voters ages 30-39, voting is up by 121 percent in Florida and 172 percent in Arizona, the analysis shows.

Those states feature some of this cycle's highest-profile races, including the progressive campaigns of Beto O'Rourke for a U.S. Senate seat in Texas, and Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams for governor in Florida and Georgia, respectively.

Overall early voting in those four states has topped their 2014 levels, fueled by increased turnout across all ages. Young voters registered the biggest gains but still had the lowest turnout so far of any age group.

Early voting data does not reveal how someone voted and does not indicate what turnout will look like on Election Day.

Jesse Hunt, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Republicans should also benefit from the rising turnout of young voters due largely to the strong economy.

"Recent college graduates will see the best labor market in years thanks to the policies implemented by this Republican-led Congress, and those voters will be receptive to the Republican agenda," Hunt said.


Beating the 2014 turnout is not that hard given how weak it was for young voters, said Daniel Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida who is tracking voting data.

"Youth are energized, but so is everyone else this election," he said.

In the 2014 midterm election, only about 16 percent of adults ages 18-24 voted, compared with about 39 percent of Americans overall, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Midterm elections in 1986 and 1994 marked the highest turnout for voters under 30 in recent decades at 21 percent, census data shows.

"Younger voters have gotten registered," Smith said. "But it’s not like an automatic that they’re going to start voting."

Voting rights groups say they have been especially creative this year to get young voters to the polls.

NextGen America, founded by billionaire liberal activist Tom Steyer, has targeted college campuses. At the University of South Florida in Tampa, the group made students “pinkie promise” to vote in exchange for ring pops and even helped carry boxes into residence halls on move-in day – while registering students to vote.

“Students aren’t apathetic,” said Rachel Clay, southeast regional coordinator for the Campus Vote Project. "They are often first-time voters, there are ID problems, they often don’t have a car, they have classes all day. Voting is treated as kind of a hassle, rather than being something to be excited about."


There are signs this year could be different.

A Harvard poll released this week showed Americans under 30 are much more interested in voting than the past two midterm cycles.

Forty percent of those polled said they would "definitely vote" in the upcoming elections, up from 27 percent in 2010 and 26 percent in 2014.

Della Volpe said actual turnout typically trails the polling data by the high-single digits, still putting this year's turnout on track to potentially surpass previous midterm cycles.

Both Democrats and Republicans indicated increased enthusiasm since the spring, with 54 percent of Democrats intending to vote and 43 percent of Republicans planning to do so.

"We’re encouraged by the enthusiasm we’re seeing across the country, but there’s a lot of work to be done," said Tyler Law, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Katelyn Dino, a junior at LaGrange College in Georgia, said Tuesday will mark the first time she votes in a non-presidential year. She plans to cast her ballot for Abrams.

"I am actually skipping school on Nov. 6 to go vote," Dino said.

Young U.S. voter turnout surges, but challenges linger

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