In the days leading up to the 2018 midterm election, New York magazine published a series of as-told-to interviews with 12 young adults on the reasons why they “probably” weren’t voting. As I wrote when the piece began to set a particular subsection of Twitter on fire, the interviews “combined two of the Politically Online’s favorite foils: maddening nonvoters and the apathy of the Youth toward treasured institutions.” For days, pundits and journalists lambasted both the people interviewed and young people writ large for their bankrupt sense of civic duty. Democracy will die not with a bang, but with millennials who didn’t know how to use the postal system, the irate commentators claimed.
Well, folks, I have some news. According to recent analysis of Census Bureau data from the Pew Research Center on 2018 voter turnout, that entire online outrage cycle was largely baseless. In the midterm elections, millennial turnout among eligible voters nearly doubled from 22 percent in 2014 to 42 percent last year. And younger generations—Gen Z, millennials, and Gen X—actually outvoted boomer and prior generations, 62.2 million votes to 60.1 million votes.
As Pew notes, “the number of eligible voters among [older] generations fell by 8.8 million between the elections.” With fewer members of older generations, it’s fair to expect turnout rates to go down, but for the first time since 1994, boomer and older generations showed up in larger numbers than the previous midterm—in fact, boomers had their highest-ever midterm election turnout. But even with the extra votes cast by galvanized elders, younger generations still outvoted them to the tune of 2.1 million votes.
For those young generations, higher turnout rates largely accounted for the increase: The number of eligible Gen X and millennial voters did increase by 2.5 million between 2014 and 2018, but the two generations together cast more than 21.9 million more votes than in 2014. And Gen Z is already turning out more than previous generations: Though only 4 percent of those born after 1996 were eligible to vote in 2018, a third of those voters made it to the polls. Compare that to millennials, whose midterm turnout rate had hovered in the low 20s since 2006. This latest generation’s impact will likely be most felt in the 2020 election, when the number of eligible voters will have doubled.
This new data dispels the easy myth that today’s young voters don’t care or aren’t significantly invested in the political process, as appealing as it may be to rail against the youngs online. Even with the return of arcane voter suppression tactics, turnout increased across generations, with that increase most pronounced in younger generations. Now imagine how many more of the Youth would vote if they didn’t have to learn how to buy stamps to mail in their absentee ballots.