In the wake of President Donald Trump’s election in 2016 and the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., this year, there were plenty of reasons to expect younger voters would turn out in droves in 2018.
Compared to past midterm elections, they did. But so, too, did many others.
While New Mexico saw higher turnout than usual for a midterm election, older voters continue to cast ballots in far larger proportions than younger citizens, according to new data from the Secretary of State’s Office.
About half of the registered voters in New Mexico are over the age of 50. And yet, they cast 63 percent of the votes.
While voters age 18 to 34 account for about 26 percent of all registered voters in the state, they cast only 15 percent of the ballots.
These numbers are about in line with national trends, said Lonna Atkeson, a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico.
“There were many more 18-30 year olds who turned out in this election,” she said. “But others turned out in equal proportion. Net, last election was basically the same.”
About 56 percent of registered New Mexico voters cast a ballot this year, including 32 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 34.
Both numbers mark an improvement. And they show younger voters made up only a slightly smaller share of those who cast ballots this year, compared to the presidential election in 2016.
Midterm elections typically draw smaller crowds to the polls compared to presidential elections, but it did not appear to bring out a particularly older crowd.
Still, the numbers show the outsize role of older voters in electoral politics.
Political scientists point to any number of reasons why older Americans are more likely to vote than younger ones.
Older voters, with their property tax bills and retirement plans, may feel they have more at stake in an election than a young person just embarking on a career.
Then again, young people also are more likely to actually attend a public university, struggle financially under the weight of student debt or serve in the military.
And there have been efforts for decades to reach those voters. Think: “Rock the Vote.”
Nevertheless, awareness campaigns may only go so far to increase turnout among younger people.
Some argue another key is ensuring more convenient access to the election process. Doña Ana County has often set up a polling site at New Mexico State University on Election Day. But this year, the county set up on campus for early voting, too.
In turn, the school broke its record for the number of ballots cast on campus, said student body president Emerson Morrow.
Four times as many people voted there this year than in the last midterm election, he said.
Not all who voted on campus were students, but many were, and for Morrow, it shows young people will vote if governments make an effort to reach them.
“I don’t think it’s a mystery why we’re seeing college students vote at lower rates,” he said. “The availability, the convenience of the polling center matters a lot.”
Policymakers have made some efforts to engage younger voters. In the last few years, New Mexico has allowed young people to register to vote and participate in primaries at age 17 if they will be 18 at the time of the general election.
Other policies could go even further. For example, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver has said she will push lawmakers to allow same-day voter registration, which is often touted as a particular help to younger citizens who are more likely to move from one county to another for college or employment.
Young people get a bad rap, Morrow said.
“I don’t think that guilt-tripping people into voting is the way to go,” he added. “We need to start with a foundational understanding not everyone has the same access.”
Atkeson points to gender as another trend that could reflect the directions of the political parties. Women and men appear to be growing further apart in their political affiliations.
About 54 percent of women and 45 percent of men registered to vote in New Mexico are Democrats.
Only 32 percent of women are registered to vote as Republicans while 37 percent of men are registered with the party.
“There has been an increasing genderization of the parties,” Atkeson said.