As night fell and temperatures dropped into the 40s on the University of Michigan’s campus in Ann Arbor on Tuesday, Sophie Greenberg, 21, could see a line of dozens of young voters zig-zagging across campus as they waited to cast ballots at the university’s art museum.
Taylor Swift’s latest album played over a loudspeaker and volunteers dished out hot slices of pizza or blankets. Campaign workers urged the students to “stay in line,” and they did, with the last voter in line processed around 1:55 a.m., said Greenberg, president of a student voter registration organization at the school.
“There’s a lot of voter apathy among young people, but I was not seeing apathy on Tuesday,” she said Thursday. “I was seeing people who were willing to absolutely test the limits to get their votes counted.”
The youth vote showed up in force for the midterm elections, and not just in Ann Arbor. An estimated 27 percent of adults ages 18 to 29 cast ballots across the country, according to an analysis of exit poll data from Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. That was the second-highest mark in a midterm election in almost 30 years.
And as a group, they broke big for Democratic candidates, providing one of the key bulwarks that helped limit the big losses that the party in power typically experiences during midterm elections. In House races, for example, young voters preferred Democratic candidates by a 28-point margin, and were the only age group in which a strong majority supported Democrats.
“I think it’s very clear that young people are more than a constituency for the Democratic Party,” said Abby Kiesa, deputy director of the Tufts center. “They are the base of the Democratic Party, and they had a profoundly influential effect on where many of these races stand.”
The Tufts analysis was based on data from the Edison Research National Election Pool exit poll.
As of Thursday, the GOP had won more seats in the House and Senate, by margins of 208-185 and 48-46 respectively, although many races remain too close to call and the balance of power in Congress remains unclear. But many had forecast a “red wave” of Republican victories, noting that the president’s party almost always loses seats in midterms, which generally have lower turnout than presidential years.
The youth vote had long been something of mythic political force that often disappointed Democrats in particular, who have looked to young, idealistic voters to flex their electoral power and challenge the status quo. Turnout in the 18-29 age bracket had hovered around 20 percent in midterms since the 1990s.
But since 2018, young people have turned out in greater force. In those midterms, for example, 67 percent of young voters cast ballots for Democrats, helping to underwrite the party’s takeover of the House with a gain of 41 seats.
That made a meaningful difference in House and Senate races in key battleground states this year too, the Tufts report found. Among the notable Democratic victories buoyed by the youth vote were the Wisconsin gubernatorial race and Senate race in Pennsylvania, in which the Democrat received 70 percent of the youth vote; the Senate race in New Hampshire, where 74 percent of youth voters backed Democrat Maggie Hassan; and the Michigan governor’s race, in which 62 percent of young people voted for Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, the report estimated.
“Where we knew it would be tight and where it would come down to the margins, we also knew it would come down to the youth vote,” said Jack Lobel, the 18-year-old spokesman for Voters of Tomorrow, a national advocacy group that works to turn out Gen Z voters for “pro-democracy” candidates.
Young voters care deeply about and are among the most impacted by the key issues in the election, including abortion rights, LGBTQ protections, and climate change, Lobel said.
“Young people, collectively, is a larger voting bloc than baby boomers,” he said. “But it’s all about turnout. It’s all about harnessing that power.”
Of all the issues at stake in the election, activists said, none was more salient for young voters than abortion rights. Nowhere was the fight over abortion more fierce than Kansas, which held a referendum on keeping the right enshrined in the state’s constitution in August, just weeks after the Supreme Court struck down the nationwide protection in its so-called Dobbs decision.
Forrest Brungardt, the 19-year-old president of the University of Kansas Young Democrats, recalled his social media accounts awash with his friends, Republican and Democrat, posting about their votes to protect abortion and encouraging others to do the same.
“The most important thing that the Dobbs decision and the abortion amendment did was it kicked in the habit of voting,” he said.
Indeed, young voter registration in Kansas was up 29 percent in 2022 compared to 2018, the second largest increase in the nation behind Michigan, where it was up 38 percent, according to the Tufts analysis. Michigan also had a referendum to protect abortion on the ballot Tuesday. As in Kansas, it passed easily.
And in Tuesday’s election, young voters in Kansas helped carry incumbent Democratic Governor Laura Kelly and Representative Sharice Davids “across the line,” Brungardt said Thursday.
Black and Latino youth supported Democratic candidates by wider margins than young white voters, the report found.
Almost 90 percent of Black voters age 18 to 29 supported Democrats, compared to 68 percent for Latino voters and 58 percent for white voters, according to the report, which said data for other races and ethnicities wasn’t available.
“Young voters are not a monolith, and their vote choice varies widely by race/ethnicity and other factors,” the report said. “In recent years, young people of color — especially Black and Asian youth — have offered Democrats extraordinary support, while white youth’s vote choice has been more evenly split.”
When Greenberg finally left the museum-turned-polling place around 10:30 p.m. after nearly 15 hours of checking that ballots were dated, directing lines, and answering questions, she was tired but proud. Her efforts, and those of her organization, Turn Up Turnout, had paid off.
“Yes. Young people are voting,” she said. “So candidates and proposals better really start listening to young people.”