The Youth Vote: Tipping the Balance

The Youth Vote: Tipping the Balance (Photo by James Bloedel on Unsplash)

Youth turnout was up and played a key role in all kinds of critical races across the country in this week’s historic midterm elections.

Thirty-one percent of youth (ages 18-29) turned out to vote in the 2018 midterms, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE), a go-to source for research on youth and political life.

That’s a 10 percent increase over the 2014 midterms, based on CIRCLE’s day-after analysis. It appears the social media chatter in the run-up to the election was more than just hype. It reflected action and resolve on the part of the nation’s youngest voting bloc.

The early analysis of CIRCLE’s data suggests that elections as close as the Wisconsin gubernatorial race, where incumbent Scott Walker lost, and the Montana Senate race, where Democrat Jon Tester narrowly held on to his seat, could have been decided by the under-29 set. With races in Florida and Georgia still too close to call days after polls closed, there will be more analysis to do once those results come through on what role young voters played.

The turnout that tipped results didn't materialize overnight. Campaigns to get out the youth vote from social media giants like Instagram and Snapchat may have played a role. But youth activists attached to a range of causes—from gun violence to abortion rights—have been working tirelessly to make this midterm different.

“I absolutely think the organizing that young people did in 2018, and before that, manifested in youth participation in the midterm election because we saw a large jump in youth turnout, “ CIRCLE Director of Impact Abby Kiesa tells YR Media.

“This type of jump requires sustained work and direct outreach that starts months and months before Election Day, which is what many young people are doing on issues and in communities they care about on a weekly basis.”

CIRCLE’s data reaches back to the midterm of 1994, and the organization estimates “that this is by far the highest level of participation among youth in the last seven midterm elections.” Which is a sure sign that attitudes amongst young voters are quite different at the moment.

“These data estimates represent a huge increase in youth participation and are a testament to the efforts that a diverse group of youth organizers built and sustained in communities and on campuses across the country,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, CIRCLE director in a press release on Wednesday.

The Millenial and Gen Z surge is a good sign for the Democratic Party, with the data-analysis group Data for Progress stating that “young people broke for Democrats by the largest margins since Obama ‘08 — and maybe even more than that.”

One place that saw young people organizing for Democratic candidates was Texas, where concert-level crowds rallied for U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke.

Gabriela Garza is one organizer whose efforts we profiled before the election.  She’s the 23-year-old president of the University of Texas, Austin chapter of Jolt Initiative, and she’s feeling optimistic about what she and other activists accomplished, even though their candidate didn’t make it over the edge.

“My overwhelming feeling, post-election, is one of hope and of resolve,” said Garza. “At Jolt, we are very optimistic, and very excited about the election results.

"That Beto was able to come so close to beating Cruz means that Texas, which became red just before the cusp of the millennial generation, is now solidly purple. This in itself is the kind of victory that demonstrates what kind of power we are harnessing.”

In Texas, it’s not just the efforts, but a demographics shift that is changing the face of politics there.

“...Texas now has two Latina women in the House. Our victories as grassroots organizers transcend what happens on Election Day. This is a long game because progress doesn't happen overnight."

Indeed, political movements have to sustain themselves between elections to be successful, and Data for Progress notes that the real “battle for Gen. Z and Millennials is not between (Democrats) vs (Republicans)” but between those who vote and those who don’t.

One thing is for sure from the results this week: that difference shapes the future.

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