Midterm elections, young voters record turnout possible, poll shows

Ahead of the Nov. 8 midterm elections, a new poll suggests a key group that often sits out could turn out in record numbers at the polls. 

Voters aged 18 to 29 set the age group’s national record in 2018. That was a good year for Democrats, who won Wisconsin and the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Wisconsin Elections Commission data show about 22% of Wisconsin registered voters are aged 18-34. In total, 3.5 million voters were registered as of Oct. 1. 

Young voters in Wisconsin this year make up about the same percentage that was registered in record-setting November 2018.

"I think it’s really kind of a powerful feeling," said Marshall Hoff, a UWM junior, as Milwaukee opened up early voting at UWM. "Among the people I’m closest to, I can say that they’re very, very interested in this election."

Hoff could be in the minority. U.S. Census data reveal 36% of those 18-29 years-old voted in 2018, and that was the midterm record since the country lowered the voting age to 18 in 1971. In the 2014 midterm, it was 20%.

"Young people always turn out less than their elders do," said Charles Franklin, Marquette University Law School pollster.

A different national poll released Oct. 27 found 18- to 29-year-olds showing the same interest as they did in 2018. Harvard’s Institute of Politics found 40% of them said they would definitely vote this midterm election.

"I voted Dems all of the way up and down the ballot," said Emily Peters, UWM senior. "I voted for Tony Evers and Mandela Barnes."

Of the likely young voters nationwide, the poll found they prefer Democrats for Congress 57% to Republicans 31%, but 12% said they’re undecided.

Here’s one warning sign for Democrats: 39% of those 18-29 Harvard polled approved of President Joe Biden’s job.

"A lot of younger voters decide to vote late in the campaign," said Franklin. "They haven’t established a lifetime pattern of always voting or always not voting, and that means a lot of young people will make up their minds to vote or not here in the last few weeks or even few days of the campaign so that’s why you see get-out-the-vote efforts concentrated for the young late in the campaign."

Franklin said the sample size of young voters in his October poll was 57 people – too small to gain insights on how they'll vote.

"It’s always been a challenge to reach young people, as any parent of a young adult knows," said Franklin. "It is hard to get them on the phone, even though 75% of our interviews are done on cellphones. It’s the problem for young and old, getting people to pick up in the first place."

He said voting at younger ages leads to lifelong habits. "I think the thing with young people is establishing the habit of voting. This is one of the reasons why parties are trying so hard to mobilize young voters. If you vote in your first couple of elections that you are eligible, we know that that pays lifelong dividends in terms of turnout…Young people who turn out the first, second, maybe the third time they are eligible also turn out in higher rates through the rest of their lives, so trying to establish that habit of voting is something parties and campaigns are very interested in doing this year."

Early voting at UWM is open to any city of Milwaukee voter. 

Will the young voters make a difference? In a state where recent statewide elections were decided by 20,000 to 30,000 votes, or roughly 1%, the answer from political analysts and campaigns is every vote counts.