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Young voters helped Democrats win the Senate and other midterm elections

People cast their early ballots for the 2022 general election at the Ann Arbor, Michigan city clerk's satellite office on the campus of the University of Michigan, on the eve of the U.S. midterm elections.
People cast their early ballots for the 2022 general election at the Ann Arbor, Michigan city clerk's satellite office on the campus of the University of Michigan, on the eve of the U.S. midterm elections.

Democrats delivered an upset to Republicans over the weekend, clinching a victory in the Nevada Senate race in order to maintain their narrow control of the chamber for at least the next two years.

Election victories, like those of incumbent Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Mark Kelly of Arizona, were fueled in part by young voters, including on college campuses in key battleground states, where students organized and campaigned to get other young voters to the polls on Nov. 8.

"I think myself and others really felt that this time, that, like, this is kind of a make or break moment," said Central Michigan University senior Katie Ellison.

"Overall, I think it was a little bit surprising, right," Ellison said. "The red wave that wasn't."

Early estimates suggest that midterm turnout among people under 30 was the second highest it's been in three decades, outpaced only by 2018 — the election after Donald Trump's 2016 presidential win.

"I'm just filled with a really big sense of pride and fulfillment that our turnout numbers are high, and that young people – especially in Michigan, but all over the country – are really turning out, showing out and speaking their voices really loudly about how they want this country to look," Ellison said.

About 27% of eligible Americans between the ages of 18-29 cast a ballot this year, according to early estimates from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University.

While this is still comparatively lower than other generational groups, the youth vote did not drop off, as Democrats had feared would happen. The youth voters' share of the electorate was 12%, similar to what it's been in past elections. They also voted for Democrats in slightly lower margins this year than in 2018.

But turnout in competitive swing states, the research found, was even higher at about 31% – the same rate of youth turnout in the watermark 2018 election.

"Outreach, contact, investment in these states was higher," said CIRCLE deputy director Abby Kiesa. "So it's not surprising that voter turnout is higher in these states."

Student voters interviewed by NPR organized voter registration drives, lobbied for polling locations on campus and helped educate fellow students on their right to vote. Their efforts were funded by the nonpartisan MTV Campus Vote Challenge 2022.

"A lot of us are just uneducated on what to do to actually get to the polls," said Emory University graduate student Mickel Sandifer. "And then, you have the accessibility barrier, you know some people don't have vehicles or access to shuttles."

Research conducted by students at the Duke University Master in Interdisciplinary Data Science program found that in 2020, 76% of colleges did not have in-person Election Day voting options, and 74% of colleges had no in-person voting options at all.

Sandifer was part of a group of students who helped organize to get ballot boxes on the Emory University campus.

"If you've got a precinct on campus, not only does that serve the school, but they also serve the nearby community and households and families that are within the area," Sandifer said.

Youth voters said they were motivated by issues including gun control, student debt, climate change and the abortion debate, which both Democrats and Republicans had made a banner issue after the repeal of Roe v. Wade.

"I feel like, especially given the overturning of Roe v. Wade, I think that made a lot of people who are less reactionary to politics to be very upset by this," said 19-year-old Emory University junior Sofia Damer-Salas.

Historically, midterm elections see the incumbent president's party lose a number of seats in both the House and the Senate. This year, Democrats managed to buck that trend by maintaining their narrow lead in the Senate.

According to CIRCLE, young people preferred Democratic candidates by a 28-point margin, a further referendum to Republicans who have long struggled to court younger, more diverse supporters.

Issues on which Democrats and Republicans are most split usually find Democratic support among younger Americans.

And on social media sites generally geared towards young people, Democrats have more readily engaged on these platforms, opening up their recognizability to potential young voters.

Isaiah Hinzman, a 19-year-old Eastern Arizona College sophomore, said, "There are a lot of people who expected that young voters were still not going to vote because they didn't believe it was as important. But this midterm election proved that young voters do care about what is happening around in this country, and they voted for their future."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: November 15, 2022 at 12:00 AM EST
Emory University student Mickel Sandifer's name was misspelled in an earlier version. It has been corrected throughout the story.
Alana Wise
Alana Wise covers race and identity for NPR's National Desk.