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Experts Discuss Power of Youth Vote in 2020 Elections

Harvard Kennedy School's Ash Center hosted a virtual panel on young voters Tuesday.
Harvard Kennedy School's Ash Center hosted a virtual panel on young voters Tuesday. By Caleb D. Schwartz
By Omar Abdel Haq and Isabella E. Pena, Contributing Writers

A panel of activists, academics, and students discussed the role of young voters and the importance of youth voter turnout in the upcoming 2020 presidential election during an online webinar Tuesday.

Hosted by Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and the Institute of Politics, the event was moderated by Abby Kiesa, the Director of Impact at Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Dawn Boudwin from the Alliance for Youth Action, Dakota Hall from Leaders Igniting Transformation, Michael Hanmer, a government professor at the University of Maryland, and Justin Y. Tseng ’22 from the Harvard Public Opinion Project served as panelists.

The discussion focused on the marked increase in young voter registration between the 2016 presidential election and the 2018 midterm elections, as well as the substantial power that young voters wield in the upcoming elections this year.

During the event, Kiesa presented polling results from previous elections, noting that young voter turnout exceeded the winning candidate's margin of victory in many states. Hall specifically pointed to Wisconsin, a battleground state where young voters have been shown to hold power.

Kiesa also emphasized the sharp increase in young voter turnout in the recent years. In the 2018 election, for example, CIRCLE surveys showed that young voter turnout increased by double digits in 31 states. Five states saw a young turnout increase of 20 or more percentage points.

Panelists also discussed how recent barriers to voting, including those created by the pandemic, may impact young voter turnout. Despite these barriers, the majority of young voters surveyed by CIRCLE said they felt that the government’s handling of the pandemic has led them to see the importance of voting for their representatives. Seventy-nine percent of young voters polled by CIRCLE said decisions made by their elected representatives impact their everyday life.

Hanmer said his biggest concern regarding young voter turnout in the upcoming 2020 election is the “potential for mistakes.” He added that it will be important for grassroots groups and state authorities alike to keep information about the voting process readily available.

“With so many people that are going to be voting for the first time, and particularly voting by mail for the first time, I think we just need to be careful,” Hanmer said.

Tova A. Wang, a fellow at the Ash Center who helped organize the event, wrote in an email that she thought young voters could “easily determine” the outcome of the election.

“I believe this is the year that young people will make their voices heard about the things they care about in unprecedented numbers,” Wang wrote. “They’ve been showing what a force to be reckoned with they are in the streets and on social media and they know now is the time to take a stand at the ballot box.”

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