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Fewer Young People Are Voting Early, a Danger Sign for Democrats

Intelligencer 10/28/2022 Ed Kilgore
Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images © Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As is often the case in both good and bad election years, Democrats are getting excited about signs of robust early voting in some key battleground states (e.g., in Georgia, where in-person early voting is setting records). But there’s a dark shadow in all this sunshine-pumping: The young voters on whom Democrats rely disproportionately are not (so far) participating in the early-voting jamboree, as Politico reports:

More than 15 million voters have already cast their midterm ballots, according to the United States Elections Project. But young voters have contributed to a smaller fraction of that turnout compared to this time two years ago, according to interviews and a POLITICO analysis of voter data.

Some of the numbers are startling:

In North Carolina, which has a close U.S. Senate race and a set of state legislative races that could determine whether abortion remains legal in the state, the median age of voters who cast ballots through Oct. 26 was 66, according to state data. Voters aged 30 and younger account for just 5.4 percent of ballots cast so far, compared to 16.5 percent of those who voted early or absentee in 2020.

And there were signs not long ago that young voters remained tuned in:

The party has had high hopes that younger voters motivated by the Supreme Court’s scuttling of abortion rights and President Joe Biden’s cancellation of some student debt would turn out in force — and help them to defy losses that the party in power typically suffers in midterm elections.

Indeed, interest in voting among late-millennial and Gen-Z voters is reportedly quite high, despite their meh job-approval ratings for Joe Biden and their palpable worries about the economy. Just this week, Harvard’s Institute of Politics released its latest Youth Poll showing good news for Democrats:

A national poll released today by the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School indicates that 40% of 18-to-29-year-olds state that they will “definitely” vote in the November 8 midterm elections, on track to match or potentially exceed the record-breaking 2018 youth turnout in a midterm election. Young voters prefer Democratic control of Congress 57% to 31% (up five points for Democrats since spring), but 12% remain undecided. 

So young voters want to vote. But as T.S. Eliot once famously wrote, “Between the idea and the reality / Falls the shadow.” What might cause a drop-off in the youth vote that could be devastating for Democrats?

Well, one theory is that young voters never participated proportionately in non-presidential elections until Donald Trump crept into the White House. The strong youth turnouts in both 2018 and 2020, one might assume, were attributable to fear and loathing of Trump. With the former president no longer on the ballot and (at least in the late stages of the midterm cycle) mostly off raging in his fever swamp rather than making news, voting segments most sensitive to Trump’s presence might, so to speak, go back to sleep. If true, that’s bad news for Democrats, but perhaps comforting to Democratic campaign strategists who can only do so much to remind voters that Trump has infected an entire major party with his pathologies.

But there is another possibility worth pondering: Maybe young voters want to vote, and even to vote early, but don’t entirely know how. A cottage industry of experts on explaining voting-by-mail procedures to digitally oriented young voters has sprung up recently, but it’s not clear Democrats and their campaigns are listening much to them.

One such firm, Tech for Campaigns, which focuses on affecting key state-legislative contests, used digital outreach to register 434,000 people to vote by mail in 2020, with those voters being twice as likely to be young and also non-white (another category of voters who vote heavily Democratic but in the past haven’t turned out in midterms) as in the general voting pool. And its co-founder and chairman, Jessica Alter, told me that she fears Democrats think of heavy voting by mail in 2020 as a one-off pandemic phenomenon.

“I worry that Democrats think that vote-by-mail/early-voting behavior of 2020 was a COVID-era aberration,” she said via email. “But what our digital program has shown is that when young voters understand that they can vote from their couch, they will.”

In a political world that tends to treat voting methods as a purely strategic matter in which organizers for political parties and campaigns tell their voters where and how to vote, it is often forgotten than “convenience voting” like voting by mail is popular because it’s convenient. This is particularly true of young voters with complicated school, work, and family lives; high levels of personal mobility; and limited roots in a particular community.

We’ll soon know whether youth turnout is as depressed as a pessimistic reading of early voting numbers suggests, and if so, whether Democrats might have done better with more aggressive, 21st-century-oriented digital-turnout methods making voting by mail a priority, instead of relying on old-school knock-on-doors tactics to get voters to the polls in person (which perhaps Democrats are overemphasizing because they didn’t much use them in the pandemic year of 2020). The fact that this year’s MAGA Republican election deniers have made voting methods an obsessive preoccupation almost definitely means Democrats need to stay alert to voting and election-law changes that help or hinder full participation by voters, and then work hard to make sure voters know how to make their votes count.

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