Historically, the midterm elections in the United States receive far less attention than the, admittedly more exciting, presidential races. In 2014, the midterm election had the lowest turnout of any race since World War II, when just 36 percent of eligible voters participated. But two years into the Trump presidency, there was an exception to this trend. National turnout in 2018 reached 53 percent—a four-decade high for midterm engagement. “Young adults ages 18 to 29—the age group that voted most strongly Democratic—saw a rise in their turnout rate by 16 percent from 20 percent in 2014 to 36 percent in 2018,” wrote William H. Frey in Brookings.
That momentum lasted through 2020—the highest turnout election ever recorded in the US. But despite nearly 160 million votes cast, almost a third of eligible voters still did not participate. According to NPR, the average nonvoter was more likely to be poorer and younger. “They are disengaged, disaffected and don’t believe politics can make a difference in their lives.”
Along with this apathy, younger voters are also impacted by structural obstacles to voting. In many countries, an election is held on a nationally recognized holiday. Of course, this is not the case in the US. Many working-class voters—especially students, who might have classes or extracurriculars on top of a job—have to choose between waiting in line to vote or missing a shift.
When young people do vote, they predominantly lean left. A new poll from the Institute of Politics at Harvard University showed that 55 percent of voters under 30 would prefer Democratic control of Congress, and many estimates show that Millennials and Gen Z will likely make up the largest voting bloc in the country by 2024. A high level of youth participation in the midterms this year could swing the results in the Democrats’ favor.
But the data is inconclusive on youth enthusiasm for this year’s critical midterms. According to Data for Progress, more than half of young people “believe that their vote matters ‘only a little’ or ‘not at all.’” President Biden’s support among young people has dropped steadily over the past year, and young people now “identify the Republican Party as more trustworthy on handling job creation and the economy in general than the Democratic Party.” Youth voter registration is also ambiguous. According to a CIRCLE analysis from September, even solidly blue states are failing to reach the youngest potential voters, ages 18–19. Yet, there are a few key states with significant increases, however, such as Michigan, Nevada, Kansas, and more, “where young people have the highest potential to decisively impact election outcomes.”
These youth voters want to see positive progress on abortion rights, climate change, and the economy. “A lot of young folk are very aware of what is at stake,” said Matt Royer, the communications director for the Young Democrats of America. In Kansas, young people led the charge against the state’s now-failed abortion ban. In Virginia, students staged walkouts to protest draconian policies that targeted transgender students. In early October, the Young Democratic Socialists and the Graduate Student Action Network organized the Day of Student Action for Reproductive Justice across 50 different college campuses.
And while many are disillusioned with the electoral process, they are increasingly engaged elsewhere. Over the past two years, students have increasingly been involved in labor struggles across the country, as Biden has created the most pro-worker National Labor Relations Board in decades. Among young adults alone, organized labor reached an approval of over 75 percent, and interest in unions has surged to the highest approval since 1965. Teenagers have organized drives at Starbucks and Chipotle, and undergraduate and graduate student workers have turned to unionizing at universities from Grinnell College to New York University.
“Voting and politicians is not where the most movement is going to happen. It’s just about laying a foundation that is hospitable to the organizing work that moves us forward,” said Michelle Hanna, a labor organizer at Ohio’s Kenyon College. “In terms of positive gains, the most promising place is the workplace.” Many young labor organizers understand the relationship and voice their support for pro-union candidates and issues, while simultaneously fighting for change within their own workplaces. “Unions are a democratic blueprint for larger society,” said Zander Lu, another labor organizer at Kenyon.
The recent poll from Harvard’s Institute of Politics predicted that youth turnout will match that in 2018. If that is true—and Democrats make unexpected inroads in the House and Senate—the Biden administration ought to pay back these efforts with meaningful policy. Almost immediately after the president announced his student debt cancellation plan, his approval rating—among both young people and Democrats as a group—hit its highest level in months.
If the Democrats want to continue receiving the youth vote, they should invest politically and socially in labor; from the NLRB to college campuses. Raising the federal minimum wage and guaranteeing paid parental leave are good starts, along with keeping promises. Biden has also vowed to legalize abortion nationally under a Democratic majority. “If you give me two more senators in the United States Senate, I promise you, I promise you, we’re going to codify Roe and once again make Roe the law of the land.” I sincerely hope Biden keeps these promises.
But whether they will be enough to blunt the progress the GOP has made among voters unimpressed by Democratic policy remains to be seen. It’s clear that young voters hold enormous influence as a demographic, and if they mobilize again in record numbers, it would be a tragedy for Democrats to only applaud their turnout instead of recognizing and aiding their fight for basic rights.