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Young voters are showing up. Election officials need to be ready.

As younger voters turn out, it’s time to think about how to make elections work for them. 

A young dark-haired man with a blue hooded jacket and olive backpack leans over a carrel with his back to the camera. Beyond him, a young dark-haired woman in a white hooded sweatshirt leans over a different carrel, clearly reading something. 
Voters cast early ballots for the 2022 general election at the Ann Arbor, Michigan, city clerk’s satellite office on the campus of the University of Michigan shortly before the midterm elections. (Jeff Kowalsky / Getty Images)

Votebeat is a nonprofit news organization reporting on voting access and election administration across the U.S. A version of this post was originally distributed in Votebeat’s free weekly newsletter. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox every Saturday.

We’re about to see a lot of polls (hello 2024!) that talk about “young voters ages 18-29.” But young voters are not a monolithic group, politically or administratively. 

That group, after all, contains all of these people: An 18-year-old Ivy League freshman attending college full-time; a 20-year-old bartender working full-time; a 25-year-old single mother attending community college part-time; and a recently-divorced 29-year-old in cosmetology school. 

These people likely do have very distinct political views, only partially influenced by their age. All four would also interact with their local election system — from registering to vote to casting a ballot — in very different ways. 

All of this has obvious implications for election administration. In 2018, Michigan kicked off same-day voter registration — that resulted in very long lines of newly eligible kids at the two biggest colleges in the state in 2022, when turnout surged. And while many worried the uptick in changes to voting laws across the country would make it harder for young voters to show up, 2022 marked the second highest turnout in a midterm for young voters in three decades. 

Last week, I went to California to moderate a panel on youth voter participation for the Education Writers Association and it had an absolutely all-star lineup: Jonathan Collins, a political scientist at Brown who studies youth voter engagement (especially among black voters); Abby Kiesa, the deputy director for the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University; Courtney Hope Britt, chairman of the College Republican Caucus; and Victor Shi, strategy director for Voters of Tomorrow and Joe Biden’s youngest delegate in 2020. 

In a five-minute overview of what we mean when we say “youth voters,” Abby pointed out that only about one-fourth of 18-year-olds are enrolled in college, making it important that both campaigns and election offices target younger voters outside of schools as well as inside of them. Similarly, Jonathan offered that people between the ages of 18 and 29 are plugged into the economy in extremely different ways, meaning that their political values — and resulting eagerness to turn out to vote — will necessarily shift over time. 

If you aren’t familiar with CIRCLE or with Jonathan’s research, I recommend both. Though, I was most impressed — sorry to my fellow non-youths on the panel! — with Courtney and Victor. Both were clear-eyed about the ideological divide we face and the impact it’s having on our policies. Courtney pointed out that Republicans largely “don’t think about youth voters” at all. That results in policies that ignore and disadvantage youth at the expense of other communities. Victor explained that most youth voters aren’t Democrats or Republicans, having been dissuaded from engaging by general nastiness. Both were also more coherent and thoughtful than many in their parties several years their senior. 

We know that the old trope that “young people don’t vote” is becoming less and less true. Jonathan and Abby (and a bunch of other smart people) believe this category of folk will turn out in 2024, and it makes sense to start thinking about their needs now. 

Victor and Courtney are, of course, the type of people journalists tend to go to when selecting younger voters to feature in a piece — extremely politically engaged young people who are formally affiliated with a party. They’ll tell you themselves they don’t represent the norm. Victor, for example, pointed out that most people his age are neither Republicans nor Democrats but classify themselves as independents, skewing the types of voices we hear in their generation further. And Courtney, having started higher education as a community college student, reminded everyone in the room that community college students tend to be far more plugged into the community — and therefore more likely to participate in local elections — than the local university community. 

Courtney and Victor both stressed the importance of journalists and election officials speaking to a range of “young” audiences, and encouraged these groups to resist the temptation to do college outreach and assume that will reach all young voters in your community.  

“Walk up to people in the grocery store!” said Courtney; “Young people go the same places you do — talk to them,” said Victor. 

Back Then

In 1971, the 26th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, lowering the federal voting age from 21 to 18. While a majority of Americans supported the move (it followed a pretty public war in which 18-year-old men were drafted), a handful of states —  Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Utah — never took any action on ratifying the amendment. South Dakota symbolically ratified the amendment in 2014. Reads the Argus-Leader of the effort, championed by state Sen. Chuck Jones (R-Flandreau): “Jones also might want to look at the 21st Amendment, which repealed prohibition, and also has never been ratified here.” 

New From Votebeat

From Votebeat Arizona: “Where’s Celia?” An Arizona elections official becomes the target of a virtual manhunt by GOP activists on a public records crusade.

From Votebeat Michigan: Intimidation and harassment of Michigan election workers could land violators in prison under new legislation

From Votebeat Texas: What’s at stake in the long-awaited trial over Texas’s sweeping 2021 elections law

In Other Voting News

  • Republicans in the Wisconsin state Senate voted to fire Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator Meagan Wolfe after a hearing heavily laced with unsupported election conspiracy theories, going against advice from their lawyers and the state attorney general, who said they didn’t have the authority. Wolfe filed suit an hour later, seeking a court ruling that says she can remain on the job in the closely watched swing state, the Washington Post reported.
  • In the latest twist in the legal saga over Alabama’s political maps, the state wants the U.S. Supreme Court to freeze a lower court’s ruling that lawmakers’ latest attempt at a map again disadvantaged Black voters and failed to comply with remedies required by earlier court rulings that earlier were reaffirmed by the Supreme Court. Federal judges in Alabama said they will have a court-appointed special master and cartographer draw new maps rather than allow the Legislature to try yet again.
  • American democracy is under stress, and lawmakers, judges, and election officials must take steps to set election rules early and communicate them clearly to reduce uncertainty, including any questions about candidate eligibility, a panel of election experts warned in a new report also covered by Politico
  • Former President Donald Trump and 16 of his co-defendants won a bid to separate their trials in a Georgia case related to efforts to overturn the 2020 election from two other co-defendants who have asked for their trials to begin next month, which means their trials will take place later, the New York Times reported
  • California lawmakers approved legislation banning hand-counting ballots in most elections, prompting threats to sue from a northern California county that has moved to do so, the Record Searchlight reported
  • After pulling out of ERIC, Ohio will share voter data with Florida, Virginia, and West Virginia in a new effort to help all four Republican-led states combat voter fraud, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said this week, the Plain Dealer reported. Several Republican-led states, including those four, have withdrawn from ERIC, a bipartisan interstate compact, in the wake of conspiracy theories about the organization
  • A local health center in California is the first voter registration agency to be established on tribal lands under the National Voter Registration Act. 

Jessica Huseman is Votebeat’s editorial director and is based in Dallas. Contact Jessica at jhuseman@votebeat.org.

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