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Minnesota saw a surge of younger voters in 2018 -- but there's room to grow

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Hundreds of students at the University of Minnesota vote on Election Day.
Hundreds of students at the University of Minnesota, including first-time voters like Madison Meinke, came to vote in the midterm election on Nov. 6, 2018. "I was nervous that I wouldn't know what to do or where to go," Meinke said. "But it was really easy."
Jiwon Choi | MPR News 2018

Updated: 11:55 a.m. | Posted: 4 a.m.

Last fall, Minnesota once again led the nation in voter turnout. The state also saw the highest voter turnout percentage in a non-presidential year since 2002, and the total number of people who showed up to vote was the most of any midterm election in Minnesota history.

With numbers like that, it's not surprising that turnout was up among every age group in the state, according to data from the Minnesota secretary of state. Some of the biggest turnout swings between 2018 and the midterm election four years earlier were among Minnesota's youngest voters.

All told, 37 percent of eligible 18- and 19-year-old voters showed up to cast a ballot last fall, up by 18 percentage points from the midterm election in 2014.

The youngest voters nearly doubled their election participation.
Voter participation increased across the entire electorate in Minnesota in the 2018 midterm election. The youngest voters nearly doubled their election participation.
William Lager | MPR News

That swing in turnout was true across the entire 18-to-29-year-old bloc of eligible voters, which saw an 18 percent increase in turnout last fall. That's a bigger swing than Minnesota saw among older voters between ages 65 and 79, which saw a bump of 10 percent from 2014 turnout.

Minnesota had an unusual number of high-profile races on the ballot in November — including an open governor's race, two U.S. Senate seats and four competitive congressional contests. But the surge in Minnesota also mirrored trends nationally, where the youth vote was substantially up from 2014 and reached a high mark for the last quarter century.

Millennials are becoming the largest group of eligible voters in the nation, and there was a massive push to register younger people to vote last year after a shooter opened fire at a high school in Parkland, Fla. Even pop star Taylor Swift weighed in on the midterm election, urging her more than 100 million Instagram followers to do their research and get out to vote.

But being eligible to vote is not the same thing as actually casting a ballot. In that regard, younger voters still have plenty of room to grow.

Even though 18-to-29-year-olds saw the biggest increase in voters of any age group in 2018, older voters still show up in reliably higher numbers.

Minnesota voter turnout for the 2018 midterm election.
According to the Minnesota secretary of state, overall Minnesota voter turnout for the 2018 midterm election was around 60 percent.
William Lager | MPR News

More than 80 percent of eligible voters in Minnesota between ages 65 and 79 showed up in the last election, according to the data, whereas less than half of the voting eligible population under the age of 30 showed up.

That's been the pattern since 1978 when the Census Bureau started tracking the age of people who cast ballots in midterm elections. The youngest voters have had the worst track record of any age group in every election.

Dan Hofrenning, a political science professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., said growth will be slower among older voters because they already participate in such high numbers. But, he said, the surge in younger voters is still "striking."

And it's good news for Democrats, as younger voters tend to be much more liberal than older voters, Hofrenning said.

"It's clear that right now Millenials and Gen Xers are much more liberal than the rest of the electorate. Their House vote nationwide was 2-1 for Democrats," he said. "On social issues, they are quite liberal, and increasingly they are asking questions about the capitalist economy."

Hoffrening said this shift didn't happen overnight. Candidates such as Barack Obama in 2008 and Bernie Sanders in 2016 did a good job of reaching and connecting with younger voters. The big question is, as these voters age — will their views shift?

"Issues like gun control, immigration, abortion or reproductive health, those are all issues that push young people into the Democratic column and also spur turnout," he said. "The overall picture looks pretty good for Democrats. This isn't the first election that this trend has emerged. It's a question about whether those views will hold as they age."