Before the Supreme Court’s landmark reversal of Roe v. Wade, there was debate on whether abortion would drive Democrats to cast their ballots in the 2022 midterm elections. “In polls, the people who report caring most about abortion relative to other issues are young, progressive, educated, concentrated in cities, and of higher income,” wrote Natalie Shure in The New Republic, “already one of the Democratic Party’s strongest bases.”
Now, we can see that it made the difference. While youth turnout—especially during midterm elections—is historically lower than older age groups, resistance to the red wave was primarily driven by Gen Z and Millennial voters prioritizing abortion protections all across the country—including Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Nevada.
Rock the Vote, a non-profit organization working on youth turnout, said youth engagement rose across all issues, but especially around abortion after Dobbs v. Jackson. “It wasn’t surprising that after the Supreme Court decision, we witnessed outrage and serious calls to action online and offline amongst young people,” said Carolyn DeWitt, the organization’s president and executive director. According to CNN exit polls, 63 percent of voters under 30 are registered as Democrats. When asked about the most important issue for their vote, Democrats in these polls overwhelmingly chose abortion—over inflation, crime, immigration, and more.
In Michigan, Vermont, and California, there were ballot initiatives to address the issue of abortion rights, with proposals to add constitutional amendments or—such as in Montana—legislative referendums. Attempts to restrict access to abortion were made via ballot measures in Kentucky and Montana, but were rejected by voters. “Across the country last night, we saw an unmistakable repudiation of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe,”’ wrote Nancy Northup, president and chief executive officer of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “Americans want their right to abortion protected.”
By 2024, according to DeWitt, young people will make up 44 percent of the voting population, which is enough to virtually determine any election. DeWitt says that one of their goals was to make sure young people were aware of just how critical midterm elections are, because these local and state elections can have an outsized impact on our day-to-day lives. “We know that young people are powerful,” said DeWitt. “That’s why we’ve increasingly seen young people, especially young people of color, as the target of voter suppression efforts, such as strict voter ID laws and polling locations moved away from college campuses.”
Immediately following the SCOTUS decision, student groups began organizing around reproductive rights. In October, The Day of Student Action for Reproductive Justice brought together college, high school, and university students from more than 50 institutions nationwide. Organized by the Graduate Student Action Network and the Young Democratic Socialists of America, the action was intended to be a strike during which students studying in the United States would abstain from class and use that time to advocate for reproductive freedom. At Harvard, law school students organized a 75-person walkout during a panel discussion hosted by Harvard Law Students for Life.
At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, junior Yasmeen Khalid noticed how organizers urged their peers to cast ballots on campus. She saw people distributing brochures that listed all the reasons why individuals should support the Democratic Party, including the fact that they defend the right to an abortion. She feels satisfied with the outcome of elected Wisconsin governor Tony Evans. “I think this is a huge step for protecting abortion rights in Wisconsin.”
With a 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court, many recognize that securing these freedoms through the courts in its current configuration is nearly impossible and would require congressional action. In October, Biden promised to codify Roe into law if Democrats held the House and won the Senate.
Despite historic engagement from young people, that unfortunately didn’t happen. But increased youth engagement won’t stop anytime soon—and neither should Democrats. “Forty-eight Democrats have expressed support for a change in Senate rules that would allow a majority of senators to enact legislation codifying Roe v. Wade,” wrote Ryan Grim in The Intercept. According to the Center For Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, abortion was the top issue influencing those under 30, and voters as a whole have given legislators a mandate to protect reproductive rights. “I want to have the option to receive an abortion if necessary,” said Khalid, “and I believe that everyone has the right to their bodily autonomy.”