The 2018 midterm elections demonstrated the opportunity for young voters to fundamentally expand and reshape the electorate to be more diverse and progressive, as well as their ability to dramatically change the values of elected bodies. Despite voter suppression in multiple states, the youth vote surged in the 2018 midterms, giving candidates with progressive platforms a huge advantage. After Tuesday’s results, the path to victory for all candidates is clear: invest in young people and talk about the issues impacting young Americans.
Surging Youth Turnout Benefiting Democrats
Tuesday’s midterms marked a surge in young voter turnout. Initial analyses by the CIRCLE Data Project at Tufts University indicate that youth turnout in 2018 reached a high of 31 percent for young voters ages 18-29. This is an increase of 10 percent from 2014 youth turnout, and the highest level of youth turnout in 25 years. This marks a dramatic shift towards a new American electorate that is younger, more diverse, and more progressive. In some majority youth precincts tracked by NextGen America, the increase in youth turnout was even higher. Youth turnout during early vote periods also surged. Wisconsin saw a 809 percent increase in early vote compared to 2014 levels, Georgia saw an increase of 371 percent, and in Nevada youth early vote increased by 411 percent.
Young people not only voted in historically high numbers, but the youth vote moved significantly to the left. On average, young voters this year supported Democrats by a massive 35 points over Republicans. This margin was even more dramatic in some critical races. In Montana, for example, incumbent Democratic Senator Jon Tester won voters younger than 30 by a 43-point margin over Republican Matt Rosendale. In Texas, 71 percent of young people voted for Beto O’Rourke, compared to just 29 percent for Senator Ted Cruz, playing a major role in in creating the competitive nature of this election. In Wisconsin, Democrat Tony Evers defeated incumbent Governor Scott Walker by a razor thin margin after a massive youth voter increase of more than 800 percent during early voting. Young voters clearly broke in favor of Democrats, with no signs that this trend will reverse in future elections. To reclaim some of this voting share, Republicans will need to turn their focus to policies that engage and center young people.
Youth Turnout Increased Despite Voter Suppression
This surge in turnout is especially impressive given the disproportionate impact voter suppression has on young people, who are more likely to be renters, in school, and generally more transient than older voters. This makes barriers like early registration deadlines, voter ID requirements, and cumbersome absentee ballot processes especially difficult for young voters to navigate. Additionally, in recent years, many Republican state legislatures and governors have actively suppressed the vote in ways that most impact youth. There are countless examples of this: Ohio’s practice of purging inactive voters if they miss one election, a process upheld by the Supreme Court; Florida’s attempt to close campus voting locations, an effort reversed by a judge, but still confusing to voters; and in North Carolina the shortening of early vote hours and the closure of campus early vote locations by the Republican-controlled Board of Elections. During the last weekend of early vote North Carolina students had to be in line for hours to vote early. And finally, after the polls closed Tuesday, reports of broken machines, long lines and ballot issues poured in from multiple states. Given this level of barriers and voter suppression, the increase in youth turnout this year demonstrates not only excitement on behalf of young voters, but also their persistence.
Historic Firsts and Young, Diverse Candidates
The 2018 midterms saw a massive increase in elected officials who look and act like Americans aged 18-35. Millennial representation in Congress more than doubled, increasing from 14 to more than 30 members. Millennials, along with the subsequent Generation Z, are the largest and most diverse eligible voting bloc America has ever seen—in 2018 young voters are set to make up 34 percent of the eligible voting population. This gives young voters a larger share of the potential electorate than any other age group. Despite this, only six percent of state legislators were 35 or younger just prior to the 2018 election. In 2017, the average age of a U.S. Representative was 57, the average of a U.S. Senator was 61. When such a gap exists between the lived experiences of a large portion of the electorate and the lived experiences of legislators, it should come as no surprise that issues largely affecting younger Americans are often not addressed. The 2018 election saw a slew of firsts for candidates who both physically and politically better represent their youngest constituents.
At both the state and federal level, America elected some of the youngest legislators in its history:
- Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D – NY 14) – 29-year-old New Yorker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is now the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.
- Abby Finkenauer (D – IA 01) – Ocasio-Cortez is closely followed as youngest-ever congresswoman-elect by 29-year-old Iowan Abby Finkenauer, who will be 30 by the time the new Congress begins in January. Finkenauer also made history alongside Cindy Axne as Iowa’s first woman elected to the House of Representatives.
- Katie Hill (D – CA 25) – 30-year-old Katie Hill, who self-identifies as bisexual, made history in becoming the first openly bisexual woman elected from California.
- Kalan Haywood (D – WI 16) – After winning in the Wisconsin state legislature, 19-year-old Kalan Haywood is likely the youngest state lawmaker in the country.
- Lauren Underwood (D – IL 14) – 31-year-old Lauren Underwood was the youngest black woman running for Congress this year. She ran against and beat a four-term GOP congressman.
- Julia Salazar (D – NY 18) – 27-year-old New York State Senator-elect Julia Salazar ran as a Democrat, but identifies as a democratic socialist.
An additional first came for Muslim-American women. The country elected its first two Muslim-American women with a Millennial Minnesotan and a younger-than-average congresswoman-elect from Michigan:
- Ilhan Omar (D – MN 05) – 36-year-old Ilhan Omar from Minnesota became one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. Omar will also be the first Somali-American member of Congress; she came to the U.S. more than two decades ago as a refugee.
- Rashida Tlaib (D – MI 13) – Omar shares her history-making achievement of first Muslim-American woman elected to Congress with a slightly older Michigan counterpart, 42-year-old Rashida Tlaib.
In a midterms cycle that had a historic number of Native American women run for office, the country’s first two Native American women were elected to Congress—one of whom is a Millennial.
- Sharice Davids (D – KS 03) – 37-year-old Sharice Davids won the House seat from Kansas’ 3rd District. She is one of the two first-ever Native American women elected to Congress.
In the Midwest, young progressives of color won three key Lieutenant Governor elections:
- Mandela Barnes (D – WI Lt. Gov.) – Wisconsin Governor-Elect Tony Evers’ running mate, 31-year-old Mandela Barnes, will become the first African American lieutenant governor in Wisconsin history.
- Peggy Flanagan (D – MN Lt. Gov.) – 39-year-old Peggy Flanagan won Minnesota’s lieutenant governor seat as Tim Walz’s running mate. According to Walz’s victory speech, “Since 1789, no indigenous woman in this nation’s history had ever been elected into the executive office—until tonight.”
- Garlin Gilchrist II (D – MI Lt. Gov.) – 35-year-old African American Michigander and former progressive organizer Garlin Gilchrist II won as Governor-Elect Gretchen Whitmer’s running mate.
In Nevada, five times as many young voters turned out early in 2018 as they did in 2014. With their help, the state achieved another historic first.
- Aaron Ford (D – NV AG) – 46-year-old Aaron Ford will be Nevada’s first African-American Attorney General.
Wins on the Issues that Matter to Young People
Criminal Justice Reform
In one of the most closely-watched ballot initiatives of this cycle, Florida’s amendment 4 passed with 64 percent of the vote. 1.4 million felons will now have their voting rights restored, reshaping Florida’s electorate, and impacting future elections in the nation’s largest swing state. In Louisiana, voters chose to repeal a relic of the Jim Crow era by deciding that a unanimous jury is needed to convict someone of a felony. Currently, Louisiana is one of only two states that allows a split-jury decisions. In Colorado, Amendment A passed with a strong 65 percent of the vote. This amendment will remove language from the state constitution that allowed slavery and prison labor without pay as a punishment. With its passage, the state government will be unable to force prisoners into working without pay. The passage of these initiatives show that voters support meaningful criminal justice reform, an issue that disproportionately impacts young people.
Immigration, an issue that the President centered his midterm campaign message on, and that young people support, was present in a number of local races and initiatives. In Oregon, voters chose to keep the state’s sanctuary law that prohibits law enforcement agencies from using public resources to arrest undocumented people. In Kansas, a deeply red state, voters resoundingly rejected Kris Kobach and elected Democrat Laura Kelly as the next governor. Kris Kobach’s platform centered on his lifelong racist and discriminatory campaign of disenfranchising voters. And in Pennsylvania, voters decidively rejected Representative Lou Barletta, who rose to fame as the anti-immigrant Mayor of Hazleton, and as a congressman remained an anti-immigrant stalwart, receiving support from an extremist anti-immigrant PAC. Wake County, NC rejected Sheriff Donnie Harrison, who supports partnering with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and elected a new Sheriff who is opposed to working with ICE. The incumbent Sheriff in Hennepin County, MN is also likely to be ousted in a close race that focused on his coordination with ICE. Lastly, with a takeover of the House, the new majority will have greater leverage to block wasteful spending on Trump’s unnecessary and costly border wall. The Democratic House will also be able to conduct necessary oversight of government abuses in the immigration system, such as the separation of thousands of children from their parents at the border.
Gun Violence Prevention
Gun violence prevention advocates also won big victories last night. From coast to coast, a number of NRA-funded candidates lost their elections. The first results of the night from Virginia showed NRA-funded Rep. Barbara Comstock losing to gun violence prevention advocate Jennifer Wexton. Rep. Pete Sessions from Texas lost to Democrat Colin Allred, a supporter of common sense gun violence prevention measures. And one of the largest recipients of NRA money, Iowa’s David Young, lost his re-election bid to Cindy Axne, an advocate for universal background checks. California saw the defeat of Rep. Steve Knight and the election of gun safety champion, and Millennial, Katie Hill. With races still to be decided at time of writing, more than 30 NRA-funded candidates lost their elections. These victories show that Americans are tired of inaction from an NRA-funded Congress, and are ready to see meaningful change on gun violence prevention.
Student Debt and College Affordability
As youth representation increases, so does the number of elected officials at both the state and federal level who either have student debt themselves, ran on a platform that aims to address student debt and college affordability, or both. Currently, only one in ten members of Congress are paying off student loans, while four in ten young people are paying student loans. Several of the young newly elected Members mentioned above, including Abby Finkenaur, Sharice Davids, Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, hold student debt and have made addressing student loans a key part of their platforms. In Connecticut, Tuesday also marked a sound rejection of President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ agenda. A PAC, largely funded by DeVos and Trump family members, spent almost $1.5 million to target five Democratic state senate candidates and college-affordability advocates, all of whom went on to win their races, despite the massive spending against them. And at Florida’s Bethune-Cookman University, the HBCU where students turned their backs on Secretary DeVos when she delivered a commencement address in 2017, student voters nearly doubled their turnout compared to 2014, an above average increase in voting even in a year of increased youth turnout.
An astounding 74 percent of Millennials support the legalization of marijuana. Where marijuana legalization was on the ballot, it received significant support. Missouri voters passed an initiative to legalize medical marijuana. Amendment 2 will change the constitution and allow doctors to prescribe medical marijuana for a list of illnesses. In Utah, 53 percent of voters supported Proposition 2 and chose to legalize medical marijuana in the state. Michigan went further than Utah and Missouri, and voted to legalize recreational marijuana.
LGBTQ+ rights and representation
LGBTQ+ candidates won huge victories last night, with more than 100 candidates winning their races. Last night’s elections ushered in the first openly gay man elected governor in U.S. history, with Jared Polis in Colorado beating his opponent with a wide margin. In Wisconsin’s closely-watched senate race, Tammy Baldwin, the first LGBTQ+ senator in US history, easily won re-election. Kate Brown, Governor of Oregon, the first LGBTQ+ governor in US history, also won re-election. In state races, a number of LGBTQ+ candidates won seats, bringing in what’s already being called a “rainbow wave.” In addition to this wave, Massachusetts voters made history by overwhelmingly supporting question 3 and voting to keep transgender protections.
Climate change is also an issue important to young voters. Several new governors ran and won on agendas that included bold plans to act on climate, such as state renewable energy standards, with some incoming governors planning to set a goal for their states to transition to 100 percent renewable energy. Several climate-related ballot initiatives also were successful, including a Florida initiative to ban offshore drilling, and a rejection of California Proposition 6, an effort to repeal the gas tax.
The initial results of the 2018 midterms demonstrates that young voters are seizing the power at the ballot box. Young people are now the largest share of the eligible electorate, and they are making their voices heard. America’s youth are reshaping our country’s electorate and having a major impact on the candidates that are running, and the policies that are gaining support on the ballot. Young voters must be a central part of winning coalitions for progressives moving forward.