In 2016, just 46.1% of voters under 30 cast ballots, compared to 70.9% of voters 65 years and older. However, the share of voters under 30 actually grew compared to 2012.
In North Carolina, young voters turned out at higher rates than in the rest of the country in 2016, but statewide, voters age 18-24 have the lowest turnout rate of any age group in every election going back to 1976.
"We saw in the midterm elections in 2018, we saw actually a 30% increase (in young voters compared to) the 2014 (midterms). And given that they're pretty much the same generation of voters, we would think that would also translate to a presidential uptick in voting," said David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College.
Political parties are working hard to court that group as well, in some instances tailoring their messages.
"The pandemic and the crises of this particular period give a uniform message for all voters. But some (issues), especially social justice, and even more climate change, if you can make a convincing appeal on climate change, that will really hit the youngest voters," said John Aldrich, a political science professor at Duke University.
"You're seeing more outreach done by the campaigns themselves, and by independent groups that are engaged in the political process. So if that is any kind of measure, I think there is a lot of focus," said McLennan.
Pointing to the large number of potential voters, McLennan believes a big uptick could potentially swing a race.
"The number of college students in the state of North Carolina, an uptick of even 4 or 5 percent can be very significant. We saw how close the election was in 2016 in North Carolina. Young people, if they came out at 2008 levels in 2016, could have swung the election to Hillary Clinton and some of the other Democratic candidates. But again, a few thousand votes the other direction could make a race that was supposed to be neck-and-neck swing the other direction," said McLennan.
In 2016, President Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in North Carolina by about 173,000 votes, which equals approximately a 3.7% difference. That, however, is less than the difference of all third-party votes combined, a share that is expected to be less in 2020. Still Trump outpaced Mitt Romney's 2012 performance, when he defeated Barack Obama in North Carolina by about 92,000 votes, just over 1%.
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"What you need to do (to get young voters) is get their attention. And in many respects, 2020 has gotten everybody's attention," Aldrich said. "The pump is primed a little bit better for getting ahold of them."
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UNC student Greear Webb is one student casting a ballot in the 2020 election. Webb, who has been active at social justice events throughout the Triangle, believes there is a misconception about apathy among young people.
"I really just don't buy into the idea that young people don't care or young people don't want to vote. But I think routinely, this narrative is placed upon us where it's almost as if the outcome is already decided for us, that young people are already counted out, and have said to be lazy. Or (they) just protest, and don't follow it up with voting. So we really do this year really want to change that narrative that young people do care. We've always cared. We care about issues like climate change, gun violence, racial injustice, but we don't always know the best avenues to have our voices heard," said Webb.
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College students also face unique challenges compared to other voting groups, namely more rigid schedules with classes and potential part-time jobs or extracurricular activities, unfamiliarity with the process, and lack of transportation. Many also live out of state, and are unaware of their respective registration deadlines. The pandemic also limited many on-campus voter registration efforts, often common in the weeks leading up to the election.
"Those are obstacles, and I think they're also obstacles we're working to overcome as young people. I think one of the ways we're working to do that is by educating ourselves and those around us," said Webb.
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Enhanced virtual efforts and potential greater flexibility with remote classes could help counteract some of the challenges for students.
In Wake County, there are 98,192 registered voters between the age of 18-24; that accounts for 11% of total voters compared to just 9% of the county's population.
In Durham County, there are 31,309 registered voters between the age of 18-24; that accounts for 11% of total voters compared to 10% of the county's population.
In both counties, many of those young voters registered this year.
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The overrepresentation presents an opportunity for young voters to wield greater political power. While Webb is supporting Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, he co-founded a non-partisan group, Young Americans Protest, that is encouraging all young people, regardless of who they support, to become politically involved.
"We're really an organization that is just here for anyone that needs to help when it comes to being part of change, positive change we would hope, in their community across North Carolina. So that isn't restricted to any type of limitation, including party affiliation," said Webb.
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