PHILADELPHIA - In one of the nation’s most closely watched Senate races — with a pair of the nation’s most hotly contested primaries — few young faces can be seen among the steady stream of voters dropping off mail ballots at City Hall.
Despite tens of millions of candidate dollars pouring into Pennsylvania’s Senate race, few candidate resources appear directed toward young voters, even after their record 2020 turnout in the Keystone State helped deliver a narrow victory for President Joe Biden.
Expect that to change this fall.
More than any other state, Pennsylvania gives young voters an opportunity to have a disproportionately-high electoral impact in this fall’s midterms — but only if campaigns and organizations invest in engaging them, according to research by The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University.
“When there are young people…20 points more likely to support one candidate over another, that is a significant number of votes,” said Abby Kiesa, deputy director at CIRCLE. “That is fundamental political power.”
American voters under 30 broke nearly 2-to-1 for Biden in 2020, and Pennsylvania’s 54% turnout rate for that age group was higher than the national average.
“In places like Pennsylvania and Georgia and Arizona, we see that the strength of support from young people of color, in particular, can be enormously powerful on the state level,” Kiesa said, pointing to Democrats’ upsets in Georgia’s January 2021 Senate runoffs as evidence.
Pennsylvania topped both CIRCLE’s senatorial and gubernatorial rankings of states where the youth vote matters the most. Georgia (with primaries on May 24), Arizona (Aug. 2), and Wisconsin (Aug. 9) also ranked in the top-five on each list.
Don’t expect big youth turnout for primaries
Historically, midterm primary voters tend to be much more politically active than the general electorate. This often means campaigns don’t exert much effort courting young voters, whose turnout rates fall far below their older counterparts.
And with dates scattered all over the spring and summer calendars, it’s easy (even for experienced voters) to miss Primary Day. That holds true, Kiesa says, especially for those who have never voted before.
“There's millions of young people who have turned 18 since the 2020 election,” she said. “Those roughly 8 million young people deserve to have a say in this midterm election and shouldn't be left out.”
Several students on the campus of Temple University on Monday told NBCLX they considered themselves politically active, but were unaware the primaries were this week.
“I have voted; I’m registered to vote; I’m pro-voting,” said Phoebe Toly, a Temple junior. “[But] I did not know [the primary was this week]...I don’t think I’ve ever had a candidate reach out to me.”
Young adults across the nation also appear more frustrated with the political process — and more likely to believe their vote doesn’t make a difference — than ever before, according to recent research from the semi-annual Harvard Youth Poll.
Of the 18-to-29-year-old adults surveyed in the poll, 36% believed “political involvement rarely has tangible results” (36%); 42% said their vote “doesn’t make a difference”; and 56% agreed that “politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges our country is facing.”
Access makes a difference too
“One of the realities of youth voter engagement that we've seen over the past two decades of research is that youth voter turnout has a lot more to do with access than it does apathy,” Kiesa said.
While Pennsylvania passed a law in 2019 making mail ballots available to all residents — a factor that led to record young voter turnout in Pennsylvania in 2020 — the state still doesn’t open polling places to voters before election day, as many other states do.
Georgia, meanwhile, provides its voters more ways — and days — to vote than Pennsylvania, even with limits set by its controversial 2021 elections law, which rolled back some voter conveniences.
However, Kiesa says don’t count out Gen Z and young millennials from setting new midterm records this November - especially if women’s health and abortion remain in the news.
“We’ve seen in 2018 with gun violence prevention — then 2020 with racial justice — young people mobilize each other around those issues,” she said. “We've seen rises in a broad range of types of activities, from marching and demonstrating to volunteering with political parties to talking to friends and family about racism.”
Noah Pransky is NBCLX’s National Political Editor. He covers Washington and state politics for NBCLX, and his investigative work has been honored with national Murrow, Polk, duPont, and Cronkite awards. You can contact him confidentially at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.