By Douglas Bristol, Jr.
As a Board member of Promote the Vote and as a historian, the groundbreaking voter turnout in the 2020 presidential election fascinates me. Americans voted in historic numbers—despite the Covid-19 pandemic—and young adults drove this change. We are, for reasons I explain below, looking at the future of American politics. If you agree with me that voter turnout is a measure of civic engagement, then the future looks bright.
Historic Turnout in the 2020 Presidential Election
More Americans voted in the 2020 presidential election than in any other election in U.S. history. The record-setting numbers represented a substantial increase, with 17 million more Americans voting in 2020 than in 2016. The percentage of Americans voting also increased. 67% of all citizens voted, 5% higher than in the 2016 election. Moreover, according to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey’s November 2020 Voting and Registration Supplement, voter turnout increased across the board. Americans from all racial and age groups turned out to vote in larger numbers than before. Yet, one group of Americans had the sharpest increase in turnout. The percentage of voters aged 18-34 increased the most between elections. For the first time in 40 years, a majority (57%) voted in 2020, up from 49% in 2016.
What impact did the 8% growth in the Gen Z/Millennial voter turnout have on the 2020 elections? A recent study of the 2020 electorate concludes a diverse coalition of young and new voters carried Joe Biden to the White House. Overall, Biden won 60% of the vote among voters between the ages of 18 and 29, and 56% among those between 30 and 45. Another study argues young voters provided Biden’s margin of victory in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. In sum, the 2020 election returns show young voters had a decisive impact on its outcome. If the high turnout of young voters in 2020 was an oddity, we could chalk it up to the increased partisanship of the election. But it was not. It continued a long-term trend.
Rising Turnout by Young Voters a Long-Term Trend
In part, the rising turnout by young voters reveals a generational change in American politics. Millennials and Gen Z comprise 31% of voters, up from 23% in 2016 and 14% in 2008. That eclipses Gen X voters, 26% of the voters in the 2020 election. At the same time, the percentage of voters who are Baby Boomers and older generations has been declining steadily, from 61% of the electorate in 2008 to 44% in 2020. Time is on the side of the younger voters, and they will eventually form the majority of the voting population.
Yet there is also a second reason for the growing clout of younger voters. Voter turnout by 18-29-year-olds has been growing since the 1990s. The elections of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama persuaded over 40% of this group to vote. More recently, the percentage of 18-29-year-old voters surged in the 2018 congressional elections. Voter turnout of these young Americans went from 20 percent in 2014 to 36 percent in 2018, the largest percentage point increase for any age group in the 2018 election—a 79% jump. Consequently, rising voter turnout by Gen Z and Millennials is more than a demographic phenomenon; it also reflects the growing engagement of younger generations with national elections.
What the Future of American Politics Looks Like
To understand how young voters will change American politics, it is necessary to evaluate why they have become more engaged. While higher turnout for Clinton and Obama suggests young voters prefer more youthful candidates, their preference for 78-year-old Biden questions that assumption. A 2020 poll of Americans aged 18-29 offers another explanation: voter turnout is one piece of a broader commitment to social activism. This is illustrated by the astonishing number of young people who took to the streets in 2020. 27% of 18-24-year-olds said they had marched or protested, and the percentage of 25-29-year-olds is even higher (31%). They also view the ballot box as a means for achieving social change. Poll respondents said issues of climate change (13%), racism (12%), and access to health care (12%) would determine their vote for president. Moreover, one-half said they had tried to convince another young American to vote.
The growing interest of young Americans in elections is best captured by their responses to poll questions about what they think is possible. 83% say they believe young people have the power to change the country. More significant for the future of politics, 60% said they felt like part of a movement that will vote to express it views. While the Covid-19 pandemic and the protest movement surrounding the death of George Floyd made 2020 an exceptional year, the long-term trends discussed above suggest Gen Z and Millennials will continue to shape American politics decisively. I believe their engagement with politics is good for our country. America faces major problems, and we can thank young voters for beginning to hold our government accountable for solving them.
Douglas Bristol, Jr. is a Board member of Promote the Vote and an Associate Professor and Fellow of the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Southern Mississippi. The Smithsonian, Duke University, and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library have awarded him post-doctoral fellowships. He is a member of the Editorial Board for the Quarterly Journal of the Army War College, Parameters. He has published two books: Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom and Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexuality since World War II. His current book project is Behind the Front Lines: How Black GIs and WACs Helped Win World War II. Publications including the Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times along with the PBS documentary Boss: The Black Experience in Business have featured his interviews.