2020 may have finally captured the elusive youth turnout — and the momentum could keep going

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University of Pittsburgh students with Biden/Harris signs and stickers, on Election Day, Nov. 3. Aaron Jackendoff/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
  • The 2020 election saw historic turnout across the board – and one crucial group showed up in a big way as young voters made their voices heard.
  • Tufts’ Centre for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) has tracked young voter turnout since 2001 and found youth voter turnout for 2020 was up at least 5% from 2016 – and maybe as much as 9%.
  • In May, psychologist Jean Twenge told Business Insider that the pandemic could actually change the consistently “low and stable” nature of the young vote.
  • Now, young voters may have tipped key margins – and could be galvanised as their preferred candidate clinches the presidency.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The 2020 election has already made voter turnout history, with President-elect Joe Biden winning the most ever votes of any presidential candidate. And the youngest voters may have played a pivotal role in that.

Tufts University’s Centre for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) has been tracking and analysing young voter turnout since 2001. According to its latest estimates, youth voter turnout for 2020 was up by at least 5% from 2016 — and could have been up by as much as 9%.

In 2016, young voters made up 16% of voters — a share that not only held steady in 2020, but actually increased by one percentage point. While that may not seem like a huge increase, Abby Kisea, CIRCLE’S director of impact, told Business Insider that it’s significant given how many more voters there were in 2020 (President-elect Joe Biden received the most votes of any candidate in US history).

Youth voter turnout

Those youth voters may have been a deciding factor in some key races. In Georgia — which Biden leads by a slim margin — CIRCLE reports an “upsurge” in youth participation that gave the president-elect net 187,000 votes..

In May, psychologist Jean Twenge, the author of “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — And Completely Unprepared,” spoke to Business Insider about the elusiveness of youth turnout.

“Every presidential election year, there’s a huge amount of talk about how this year is going to be different. This year, the young people are gonna turn out and vote, and it just never happens,” Twenge said at the time, noting that turnout by young voters has generally remained “low and stable.”

But she said the pandemic could change all of that: “Maybe this will be different. I mean, this is an enormous cultural event. This is the biggest cultural event since World War II.”

In a post-election interview, Twenge said the lives of young people were “very” disrupted by the pandemic. Those 18-to-29-year-olds were more likely to have lost a job or income during the pandemic, and had seen an increase in mental distress.

“That suggests a lot more dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs,” Twenge said. “And, generally, if you’re dissatisfied with things, you’re going to vote against the incumbent. And then you compare that to the overall statistics in terms of young people leaning democratic — you can see how they would vote.”

The pandemic and the economy were both top of mind for young voters

Young Biden voters were focused on the pandemic, with 42% citing it as their top issue. For young Trump voters, jobs and unemployment were at the forefront, with 41% saying it was their top issue.

Young women of colour, in particular, were at the forefront of galvanizing young voters, as CIRCLE found they were most likely to convince their peers to vote.

Overall, CIRCLE found that young people of colour supported Biden overwhelmingly — and they were “key support” for Biden. In Georgia, for instance, 90% of young Black voters supported Biden, compared to just 34% of young white voters.

Youn

Gen Z on the whole is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation, and comprises around 20% of the entire US population.

Student organisers told Insider that Gen Z is a big voting bloc — and they hope politicians will recognise that

Milu Parrilla, an 18-year-old freshman studying biology at Georgia State University and an organiser with Student PIRGs New Voters Project, told Insider that many of the young voters she spoke with wanted to become more involved in politics.

That’s where youth mobilisation came in; CIRCLE reported that, for young voters of colour, “voting is not a question of interest and enthusiasm, but of opportunity and access.” Per their June 2020 poll, two in five young Black voters had “never seen information on how to vote by mail or absentee.”

“A lot of young people are scared. Once they get out of college, how will they be able to get work?” Parrilla said. She said that students wanted to become a part of the discussion — and many have sought out information on key dates or registration procedures.

What comes next for the new generation of voters?

Twenge said the galvanization of this new voting bloc could depend on the outcome of the election (when we spoke the race had not yet been called). She said younger voters lean more Democrat, and a Trump victory may have been “deflating.”

“If Biden wins, then you could end up with a feeling of the liberals in the generation that, ‘Hey, we went out and voted, and look what happened. We made a difference,'” Twenge said.

And, with a historic new president-elect in town, parties in the street, and an outpouring of memes, that may just be the case.

It’s also unclear what impact the Trump administration’s current refusal to concede the election will have, and whether younger voters’ faith in democracy could be shaken by the incumbent’s efforts to sow distrust in it. After an election when the youth vote finally seems to have materialised, what comes next could be crucial.