Carter Oselett didn’t leave the East Lansing clerk’s office until 10:30 Tuesday night, when there were still young people waiting in line to register to vote in Michigan’s Democratic presidential primary.
“What we ended up having was a bunch of students go to the polling place, realize they can’t register to vote there, and subsequently have to go to the clerk’s office,” says Oselett, a Michigan State University student who also works with Rise, a nonprofit advocating for free college. “So the polling places for the most part didn’t have long lines, but the clerk’s office did because everyone was going there.”
Based on those lines, the same-day registration numbers, and early analysis from groups that track youth voter turnout, there’s reason to feel pretty good about whether the largest segment of the U.S. electorate – millennials and Gen Z – made it to the polls on Tuesday.
That could be an early indicator for November, when progressives are hoping the under-35 crowd will do a repeat of the 2018 midterms: turnout in such big numbers that they’re a decisive factor in Democratic victories across the ballot.
Let’s break down what we know so far:
1. Thousands of people registered and cast a ballot on Election Day, and officials think they’re probably young or first-time voters.
The young people lined up at the clerk’s office near MSU weren’t alone. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said these same-day registration “bottlenecks” were primarily in East Lansing, Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, and Dearborn (all of which have large youth and student populations.)
Statewide, more than 13,000 people registered and voted on Election Day, and more than half of them showed up to the clerk’s office after 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, according to Benson. That put extra strain on the clerks’ offices, which are used to handling just a few registrations at a time.
“We’re going to work with the handful of communities that experienced this … and make sure they have the resources to potentially open satellite locations, leading up to November’s election,” Benson said.
“But also I think this reflects the significant amount of interest that young voters have had in our election today. First-time voters as well. And that’s a great thing.” Those are 13,000 voters that wouldn’t have been able to cast their ballots just four years ago, Benson noted.
2. The exit polls look good for youth turnout, but it’s complicated.
Abby Kiesa analyzes youth turnout across the country at Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, aka CIRCLE. The group typically pushes out big press releases breaking down the state-by-state data for young voter turnout. But with Michigan, they can’t do that this year. That’s because their early estimates for the state would be based on in-person, Election Day exit polling, and so many Michigan voters voted absentee this year.
But, based on those limited samples, things look like they may have gone really well for youth turnout on Tuesday. “If we use the number of votes counted as of this writing, a preliminary estimate of votes cast by young people shows that youth in Michigan clearly exceeded their voter turnout in 2004 and 2012 (the last two elections in which only one party had a competitive primary) and could have one of the higher rates of youth participation so far in this primary cycle,” the group says in a statement released Wednesday.
Kiesa says when they look at the national picture for young voter turnout so far, it’s important not to compare those numbers to the 2018 midterms, or even the 2016 primaries, when both parties had competitive primaries.
“Primary cycles target and engage usually the most partisan and most engaged community members,” she says. “Cycles like 2008, 2016, we see young people who are surrounded by more information. Because they may have people who are talking about the election around them…. And, you know, it’s obviously reaching more young people when both parties have a competitive election, especially in a state like Michigan, where there can be where there can be real diverse ideological leanings amongst young folks.”
So in that context, youth turnout in the primaries and caucuses so far “is on par or higher than turnout in other cycles when there’s been only one competitive primary,” Kiesa says.
3. Some precincts with a lot of young voters saw an increase in turnout overall.
“Precinct-level results across the state showed that voter turnout in youth-dense precincts where NextGen Michigan was actively organizing increased over 2016 raw vote totals,” the group said in a statement.
The group released the following data in a press release Wednesday:
“When you meet young people where they are and make voting as easy as possible, they will show up,” Next Gen Michigan State Director Jay Williamson said in the statement. “We have a lot of work to do before November but the increase in youth-dense precincts proves that our tactics are working and will be a critical part of building a progressive margin of victory.”