What Caused the 2020 Student Voter Turnout Surge?

What Caused the 2020 Student Voter Turnout Surge?
portrait of Anne Dennon
By Anne Dennon

Published on February 10, 2021

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"Young people don't vote." The established wisdom about youth voting behavior — that their passion for political issues is hypothetical, that apathy keeps them from the polls — officially expired on November 3, 2020.

A summer of youth-led protests and a fall of unprecedented youth vote campaigning — much of it organized by and for college students — helped clinch state and federal elections for progressive candidates, flipping swing states and electing a completely Democrat-controlled government.

Youth voters helped clinch state and federal elections for progressive candidates, whose appeals to young people include the promise of debt forgiveness and government-subsidized college education.

Even before the galvanizing events of 2020, the unprecedented youth voter turnout in the 2018 midterms signaled a turning point for young voters. President Donald Trump motivated more young people to vote (albeit against him) than any candidate since Barack Obama.

Some pundits wondered whether young people would really "get out the vote," or stick to social media. Others worried that the COVID-19 pandemic, campus closures, and the loss of college voting places might hamper the youth vote. Over 40% of 18-to-24-year-olds in the U.S. are college students. Citing the pandemic, many states relaxed absentee voting laws and extended voting windows this year, moves championed by student voting activists.

Breakdown of the 2020 Youth Voter Turnout

Even before turning 18, many of today's young people had occasion to influence U.S. policy on a large scale. Stricter gun control legislation floundered until students banded together in the aftermath of school shootings, leading states to pass over 60 gun control laws in 2018.

Turnout was all that stood between America's youth becoming the nation's most influential voting bloc. For decades, voter turnout has been lowest among the youngest eligible voters.

But as the American electorate grows younger and more diverse, it has also grown more politically engaged. Tufts University's Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) estimates that 52-55% of voting-eligible people aged 18-29 cast a ballot in the 2020 presidential election.

Youth voter turnout increased between 5 and 10 percentage points from the 2016 to 2020 presidential election, according to available data. Not only did more young people vote in the 2020 election, but more young people also voted Democrat. That uptick helped seal Joe Biden's victory. While as little as 2% of 18-to-29-year-olds supported Biden in November 2019, a whopping 61% of people in this age group supported him by election time.

College Education Alters Voting Behavior

The number of students earning an undergraduate degree rises each year. These college graduates contribute to what William H. Frey, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, calls the "new American mainstream" — a growing voter bloc of young people who are more likely to be college-educated and people of color.

All college-educated voters, regardless of race, are more likely to vote Democrat.

All college-educated voters, regardless of race, are more likely to vote Democrat. Over the past four years, this trend has intensified. Support for Trump among white male college graduates dipped from 14% to 3%. Among white female college graduates, Democratic support rose from 14% in 2016 when Hillary Clinton was on the ticket, to 19% in 2020.

White college graduates also contributed to Biden's win in Arizona, a state that hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since it helped reelect Bill Clinton in 1996.

As the 2020 election has shown, the country's changing demographics benefit the Democratic party. According to Frey, "After a summer of protests and activism among young people, persons aged 18-29 registered a rise in Democratic support between 2016 and 2020, from 19% to 24%."

Swing State Urgency Pushed Young People to the Polls

Youth voter engagement in 2020 soared highest in battleground states. Buoyed by aggressive youth voter initiatives, young people took full charge of their voting power this election year, not only by casting a ballot but also by being strategic about where they registered.

Out-of-state college students are among the only Americans who can pick where to register to vote.

Out-of-state college students are among the only Americans who can take their pick of where to register to vote: their home state or the state they attend college in. A 2010 study found that student voter turnout was higher when a student's home state or college state was a swing state.

Organizations are finally getting around to using the college student's dual residency to their political advantage. One organization, Voteology, recommends where students should register based on historical margins in presidential, House, Senate, and gubernatorial races in their home and college states.

Conservative states have tried to prevent this sort of reverse gerrymandering by raising the bar on voter registration requirements. Voter activists condemn these voting requirements, like holding an in-state photo ID, as voter suppression.

Pandemic-Related Changes Propelled Young Voters

Historically, students have relied heavily on campus resources to register to vote and cast their ballots. With campuses closed and campus poll booths removed in some states, voting activists wondered whether COVID-19 would block the blue wave. Early voter and exit poll data, however, suggest the opposite.

Structural changes in response to the pandemic appear to have helped, rather than hindered, youth voters.

While first-time voters may be more likely to miss the window to request an absentee ballot or make mistakes that lead to rejected ballots, structural changes in response to the pandemic appear to have helped, rather than hindered, young people.

Many states decided to relax rules around voting absentee, allow same-day registration, and keep ballot drop boxes available on college campuses, even while campuses technically remained closed. As college students faced new barriers to casting their ballots, they also took advantage of new leniencies.

Ultimately, the summer's political energy was deposited squarely in the ballot box, resulting in higher youth voter turnout in 2020 than in 2016.

The Youth Vote's Impact on the 2020 Election

The youth vote is unpredictable. In any election year, not all students who register to vote make it to the polls. With college campuses and public libraries closed, not to mention a lack of in-person voting resources, last year's swelling youth vote could have gone flat. But the massive surge voting activists predicted came all the same.

Youth voters not only increased their turnout in 2020, but they also made a significant difference in the presidential race and key senate races. According to CIRCLE, the "overwhelming support for President-elect Joe Biden from youth of color was one of the defining elements of the election." Biden found favor with 87% of Black youth, 83% of Asian youth, and 73% of Latino/a youth.

As more young people go to college, more college graduates flock to the Democratic party. The result: Democrats now control the White House, the House, and the Senate. But now that college students have their preferred party in power, the question becomes whether Democrats will return the favor with debt forgiveness and free college.

Feature Image: SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images

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