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Will 2018 be the year of the millennial voter?

MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley
Young voters — especially in Minnesota — have a big opportunity to be a deciding factor in who represents the state in Congress, in the statehouse and as governor.

November’s election is projected to be the country’s first in which there are more millennials eligible to vote than baby boomers.

As such, you might think campaigns will cater to the young; that issues millennials care about will be front-and-center in debates and that candidates will align their positions with what’s now technically the United States’ biggest generational voting bloc.

Except for one thing: Millennials haven’t been great at voting.

This year, though, young voters — especially in Minnesota — have a big opportunity to be a deciding factor in who represents the state in Congress, in the statehouse and as governor.


The reasons millennials haven’t tended to vote in high numbers are numerous and they’re not unique, said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, the director of Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).

Many young people move around a lot, and when they do, they don’t always update their voter registration, even if they’ve gone to the polls in the past. Since they’re mobile and prone to low turnout, campaigns don’t bother reaching out to them as much as they do reliable poll-goers.

Those characteristics describe millennials as well as members of previous generations of young people. Each of the last three generations has shown patterns of low voter turnout at younger ages, and picking up steam at the polls as they’ve gotten older, Kawashima-Ginsberg said.

“Young people in general … have always had a much lower turnout than older adults, as we’ve seen over and over,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said. “It’s true in presidential elections, but it’s even worse in midterms.”

There are some nuances to that trend, though.

Overall, it’s the boomers, currently ages 54 to 72,  and millennials, currently ages 22 to 37, who have tended to vote at higher rates as youngsters than gen-Xers (currently between the ages of 38 and 53), Kawashima-Ginsberg said, though gen X turnout rates caught up later in life.

Because turnout data tends to come from exit polls and the Census, where the age groups used don’t match up perfectly with generations, we don’t have exact numbers for millennial turnout.

We  do know that in 2016, just 55 percent of 18- to 24-year-old Minnesota citizens (mostly millennials, with 18 and 20-year-old members of gen Z) turned out to vote, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau compiled by Minnesota Compass.

Citizen voter turnout by age group in Minnesota, midterm years
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, compiled by Minnesota Compass

But millennials are a big generation and if history’s any indication, they should start to get better at voting.

Slightly older millennials, age 25 to 34, had 65 percent turnout — 10 percentage points higher than their 18- to 24-year-old peers.

Older millennials are reaching their mid-30s, an age where people are historically more likely to bother with ballots.

While 30-somethings aren’t quite peak voting age — that would be 50s and 60s — “37 is starting to get there,” said Michael McDonald, a professor of political science at the University of Florida.

Big elections

If they do vote, young people could help sway the outcome of elections this year in Minnesota, one of the most competitive states in the U.S. this November, according to CIRCLE.

CIRCLE determines the potential impact of young voters in a given state with an index that takes into account the number, characteristics and political leanings of young voters compared to the general electorate, state voting laws (for example, Minnesota’s same-day registration makes it easier for people who are new to a precinct to vote), how young people turn out in midterms and how competitive races are.

In Minnesota this year, there are the regularly scheduled contests for eight congressional seats, the state House, the governorship and one U.S. Senate seat on the ballot. But there’s also a second Senate race prompted by U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s resignation and a special election resulting from the resignation of Minnesota Sen. Michelle Fischbach that will determine who controls the Minnesota Senate.

The fact that our state has so many races — many of them competitive — on the ballot is one reason CIRCLE ranks Minnesota as one of the the top states where young people, ages 18 to 29, could have an overall impact on the outcome of elections. (Not all of the people in this age group are millennials. Some are considered gen Z, the age group following millennials).

Different dynamics?

For several reasons, November might mark another uptick in young voter rates, among millennials, yes, but also among the newest gen Z voters, Kawashima-Ginsberg said.

As far as gen Z voters, currently ages 18 to 21, are concerned, Kawashima-Ginsberg speculated that higher levels of involvement in protesting gun violence and racial inequality could also mean voting at higher rates.

Since young people skew Democratic, some might be tempted to predict that higher turnout among their cohort would mean certain gains for Democrats. But it’s important to remember that young people aren’t monolithic, McDonald said.

Mobilization and turnout are important, but, McDonald speculated, getting voters to switch parties will probably be more important in affecting the outcome of the election.

“If the Democrats are going to take back the House of Representatives or the Senate, it’s not just going to be changing demographics,” McDonald said.

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Sheila Ehrich on 07/10/2018 - 09:40 am.

    why they might not vote

    I am currently teaching U.S. Government and Politics. My students have been following the news of the Parkland students and their efforts at getting young people to vote. While most of my students won’t be old enough to vote this year, we discuss whether they would if they could.

    One of the hard realities that keeps coming up is that voting is such an indirect way to actually try to effect change. First you need to get yourself informed, pick a candidate and vote in the primary and hope your candidate wins. Then you need to go back to the polls and vote in November, again hoping your candidate wins.

    Then the legislative session starts and even IF your candidate has won, if they are not in the majority, there little chance any legislation they propose will see the light of day. They also see that even if their candidate, now legislator, is in the majority, there is no guarantee that he/she will be able to do anything about their issue.

    Last year’s legislative session was a perfect example, not one bill concerning gun legislation was brought to the floor for a full vote, no matter which party you were in. So my students question whether getting out there and voting really will do anything.

    They truly see the issue very logically – people who shouldn’t have guns in the first place have them and have killed lots of people, including students. So we need to pass laws that prevent people who shouldn’t have guns in the first place from obtaining them so easily. To them that is a “no-brainer”. Unfortunately adults don’t really operate on logic, they see this and wonder, “What’s the point in voting?”

    Now, as an adult and teacher I know this is the only system we have and we’re not likely to change it anytime soon. But I also think my students have a point. What good does it do to get out there and work for a candidate and help get them elected if they’re going to be treated as a cardboard cutout once the legislative session starts?

    They want to see adults act like adults and follow the rules and processes they are learning about. Bring up the various bills, no matter who proposes them, assign them to a committee to be debated. If that committee passes the bill, put it on the calendar, let the entire legislative body debate it and take a vote.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/10/2018 - 10:36 am.

      I hope you pointed out to your student….

      Since elected officials are the only ones who can pass laws, voting is actually the ONLY way they can get laws passed. You can do other things as well, but voting take ten minutes of your life and being informed isn’t THAT difficult. You need to be informed whether you vote or not anyways.

      • Submitted by Anthony Ross on 07/10/2018 - 01:30 pm.

        Ten minutes of my life?

        For many many people, that is simply untrue. Be it closing polling stations, long lines, disinformation campaigns about poll locations, proper ID, there’s and endless litany of reasons voting can take much longer than 10 minutes of your life. Set aside people working 2 and 3 jobs.

        • Submitted by Pat Berg on 07/10/2018 - 04:21 pm.

          Absentee voting takes care of a good share of the problems on your list. In Minnesota, anyway.

          • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/11/2018 - 09:28 am.

            Yes and…

            I hope our students are being taught how to vote, and as for the rest… if you don’t have time to vote, you don’t have time to do anything else.

      • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 07/11/2018 - 12:45 pm.

        It’s not the only way

        In fact, the whole list of “problems” these kids have with the system can be overcome by putting people in office that WILL do the things they’re elected for. That means that THEY have to step into the public arena, throw their hats in, and go to governments to do the things they want done. The GOP has done a good job at training ambitious, conservative, young ankle biters to become powerful, ambitious, conservative pitbulls in governments. Liberals are much more laissez faire about the whole thing. We work by group action rather than training pitbulls. It’s probably time to change that. Well, it’s pretty well past time to change that. In the meanwhile, I don’t want to hear those young whippersnappers whining about ANYTHING if they don’t at least vote.

    • Submitted by Peggy Reinhardt on 07/10/2018 - 11:46 am.

      Valid comment

      I appreciate your insight on how students today view voting. It’s not hard to become cynical when candidates fail to follow up on promises, speak in generalities, or put political party over public safety. And behind-the-scene tactics by elected officials often go unnoticed and unreported. Exactly why didn’t a gun-related bill even get a hearing?

      I’m depending on your students to get back in there and continue to track that the gun-related issue. Take those legislators to task. Follow up by using social media to name names of public office holders. Get obnoxious (not illegal) to get attention. Call out legislators who failed to address this. Offer ideas regarding mental heath and guns and suicide, for example. Most of all, keep peers and oldsters like me informed.

      Without Parkland survivors, many of us had no idea how fearful students are regarding active-shooters at schools. Your students can bring about change on an issue – if not a particular candidate. And hopefully, one success can keep students engaged and voting.

      • Submitted by Pat Berg on 07/10/2018 - 03:22 pm.

        Power in numbers

        And I’m not sure these students realize the power that there is in numbers. Why do you suppose the Tea Party movement ended up being so influential? Because all those people got out there en masse and made themselves heard.

        Well, these students can do that, too. But only if many, many of them can unify around some messaging and then get organized and out there. Politicians do notice these things (especially when they get “primaried”).

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 07/10/2018 - 01:42 pm.


      I usually dismiss criticism of millennials as being entitled, but this comment sure doesn’t help the cause. It seems like you are saying they want instant gratification in elections. The problem wasn’t fixed immediately so why bother.

      There have been a lot of issues over time that seem like “no-brainers” that took multiple elections and years of hard work to move forward. Tell them to get to work. And to vote.

  2. Submitted by Larry Lamb on 07/10/2018 - 10:39 am.

    Yes Virginia– history does repeat itself.

    “this is the only system we have and we’re not likely to change it anytime soon. But I also think my students have a point. What good does it do to get out there and work for a candidate and help get them elected if they’re going to be treated as a cardboard cutout once the legislative session starts?”


    You may want to teach them about the alternative results for the failure of being informed and active and holding elected officials accountable,

    Start here:

    “To say that Hitler was elected is too simple. He would never have come to power if Germany’s leading politicians had not responded to a spate of populist insurgencies by trying to co-opt him, a strategy that backed them into a corner from which the only way out was to bring the Nazis in. Hett lays bare the misguided confidence of conservative politicians who believed that Hitler and his followers would willingly support them, not recognizing that their efforts to use the Nazis actually played into Hitler’s hands. They had willingly given him the tools to turn Germany into a vicious dictatorship.”

    from Amazon intro for:

    The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic Hardcover – April 3, 2018 by Benjamin Carter Hett

    We are witnessing history in the making– and it is not good.

    • Submitted by Mark Bliven on 07/11/2018 - 09:26 pm.


      Detachment is the goal of despots. They want to convince everyone else that voting is useless and there is no chance of reforming corrupt government. These old white guys then wink at each other, cast their votes at a 100% rate, and continue to control everything.

      We did make progress after the 1960’s activism. We got progressive leadership in place both nationally and here in Minnesota. We then became complacent and the arc of justice started straightening out and has now truly started bending in the opposite direction. We need to get off our back ends and get back into the struggle. It’s not simple. It’s not easy. It’s payback for our complacency.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/11/2018 - 09:47 am.

    Actually I think 2016 was the FIRST year

    In many way’s 2016 might have been the first year of the millennial voter. In many ways millennial’s propelled Sanders into prominence and Clinton’s problems connecting with millennial’s contributed to her defeat.

    To a large extent the millennial dilemma foreshadowed the current rift and struggles within the Democratic Party.

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