Regardless of political party, Americans across the country can agree that the 2018 midterm elections are of paramount importance. So too, then, is getting the data right about it.
To help add context to the conversations about these critical races that will decide control of the U.S. House, Senate, and governorships, TargetSmart released new analysis two weeks ago showing that registration rates for voters aged 18–29 have significantly increased in key battleground states over the last seven months. Our analysis looked specifically at young voters as a share of new registrants after the shooting in Parkland, Fl., and found a clear surge — especially in key battleground states, like Pennsylvania, which saw the share of youth voter registration surge by over 16 points after February 14, jumping from 45.2 percent to 61.4 percent of new registrants.
So when The Washington Post released its own analysis finding “hardly any change in the overall share of registered voters ages 18 to 29 since the Parkland shootings,” and ultimately cast doubt on “under-30 voters having a huge impact in November,” we figured something was askew.
With all due respect to the Post, the data they look at is too limited, narrow and ultimately misleading. Their analysis looked at youth voters as a percentage of the total registered electorate over a very short period of time, whereas ours looked at youth voters as a percentage of new registrants both before and after the Parkland shooting, which spurred a youth-led movement to register young voters across the country.
Looking just at the share of total registration, as opposed to new voter registration rates, seems to miss the point. For one, a surge in voter registration is a great early indicator of intensity and enthusiasm — new registrants tend to vote at a quite high rate relative to the overall electorate. For instance, in 2014, in the eight states the Post analyzed, young people who registered after January 1 had 21 percent voter turnout compared to only 16.6 percent turnout for those who were already registered by the beginning of the year (see below for full breakdowns).
Additionally, the initial results from primary elections this year show that young voters are voting more than they have in past years. In four potential swing states (GA, OH, NC, TX) that have already held primary elections, young voters have increased their turnout rate from 3.1 percent in 2014 to 5.3 percent. While still quite low, the turnout data thus far shows that young voters are more motivated than they have been before, and there’s good reason to believe that this trend will continue into November.
The overall registration number also includes a significant percentage of infrequent, and even deceased, or moved voters, thereby muting the important trends happening in voter registration when viewed as a share of all registered voters.
The time frame the Post used skews the analysis in favor of marking the argument that the youth registration surge won’t be impactful. In Florida, the Post shows that the youth registration surge resulted in a 0.1 percent share increase over 2 months. But in Ohio, where there is a more recent voter file, the Post shows a 0.8 percent share increase over 4 months. Maintaining that pace, we would expect to see a surge in youth registrants as a total share of over 1.7 percent by Election Day, which is certainly significant. This would suggest that, even if youth turnout relative to the state average was equal to 2014, they would comprise a share of the electorate more than 1.7 points above 2014. The surge in Nevada was even bigger, and the Post didn’t even include Pennsylvania at all, which showed the biggest surge of all states.
A small share gain over a small period of time could become a large gain over a larger period of time. And more specifically, a relatively small share gain can have a big impact in a close race, especially with a group (youth voters) that typically vote heavily in favor of Democrats over Republicans.
There are many ways to slice and dice the data, all of which will paint very different pictures of what the electorate may look like come November 6, 2018. But to argue that youth voters are unlikely to have an impact in this year’s elections is both a disservice to the good work young activists are doing to register their peers and a misleading claim backed up by a narrow data set.
Of course there are still important questions regarding youth turnout to be answered in November.. But early data on young voters registering is meaningful and promising. Read more on how young voters are registering at increasing rates here.