This was supposed to be the year young people hit the polls in droves, pushing back on historically dismal youth turnout in midterm elections. Parkland student activists like David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez traveled the country all summer to sign up new voters and last month appeared in a sleek get-out-the-vote video. The rallying cry, “The young people will win,” has become a constant refrain.
But the young people can’t win if they don’t show up. And early numbers from Florida — home of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting that inspired a surge of youth activism — aren’t exactly promising. According to an analysis by University of Florida political scientist Daniel A. Smith, voters between the ages of 18 and 29 have cast just 6 percent of the ballots to date, despite making up 17 percent of the state’s electorate.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be a jump this year. Young people tend to vote later — in 2014, 63 percent of them did so on Election Day, Smith says — but the data so far don't suggest a massive increase. At this time in the 2014 election cycle, the under-30 block of voters accounted for less than 5 percent of ballots cast, so the difference as of now is about 1 percentage point. And waiting until November 6 can be problematic.
“This is the glass-half-full story,” says Smith, who shares his insights on a blog called ElectionSmith and on his Twitter feed. “Younger voters do vote later. There’s just more risk in terms of waiting because something can come up or there can be crappy weather, or your car breaks down or your boss makes you work another shift or you’ve got an exam or you go to the wrong precinct. All those things can’t be fixed.”
Mid-day Florida turnout update (as of this am).— daniel a. smith (@electionsmith) November 1, 2018
Over 3.7m votes cast in FL (VBM + EIP). Here are the vote shares, by group:
Ds narrowing the gap...
Historically, turnout among the 18 to 29 demographic has been pretty pathetic. The best numbers that demographic has put up in the last two decades was 25.5 percent in 2006, data from FiveThirtyEight shows. In the 2014 midterm election, only 20 percent of young people voted — the worst rate in 40 years. They stay home in much greater numbers than other age groups; the overall turnout rate for midterms is typically around 40 percent.
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There have been some promising signs this year. Analysis from TargetSmart, a firm that works on behalf of Democrats, found that voter registration by the under-30 segment spiked 8 percent in the Sunshine State after the Stoneman Douglas shooting compared to the same time period before the incident.
And a widely reported poll by the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government found 40 percent of adults under 30 said they would “definitely vote.” The previous high point was 34 percent.
Smith says that with such a low turnout in previous years, it’s easy to improve. But voter participation is up across the board in 2018. The over-65 demographic that traditionally votes at a rate of 64 percent might this time vote at 74 percent or even 84 percent, Smith says. Even if young people double their turnout, it’ll still sit around 40 percent — raising the question of how meaningful the increase will really be.
“So, yeah, yay for young people is how I look at it,” he says with a laugh. “I would love to be proven wrong.”