High schooler Benjamin Williams wasn’t sure what to expect as he approached his polling station in Oswego, Illinois. Like more than 8 million other young Americans, this was the first election in which Williams was eligible to vote.
“I was nervous, but I was also excited,” he told VOA. “I’ve been thinking for years about what it would be like to vote. It’s really the first time I was able to make an impact on the direction of my country.”
Results so far have confirmed that Williams and his peers indeed have had an impact on the country’s direction by voting in large numbers in Tuesday’s midterm elections.
The country still awaits the outcome of a few contested races to determine who controls the country’s legislative branch. Most pundits predicted Republicans would score a convincing victory, a so-called “red wave.”
That wave didn’t materialize, and it appears higher-than-expected turnout in key races across the country may be the reason. Turnout was particularly striking among young voters like Williams, ages 18-29 and known as Gen Z.
“I think a lot of pollsters missed the youth vote,” said Robert Collins, professor of urban studies and public policy at Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana. “They made a big difference in some important races.”
Nationally, 27% of eligible voters under age 30 cast ballots, a percentage matched only once in a midterm election in the last 30 years, during the record-breaking 2018 election. These younger voters preferred Democratic candidates by a whopping 28 percentage-point margin, helping Democrats win statewide races such as a Senate seat in Pennsylvania and a governorship in Wisconsin.
“But it wasn’t just Gen Z that showed up in large numbers,” Collins added. “Ballots are still being counted, but the 2022 midterms are looking like they will have produced one of the best turnouts in years.”
After a year of heightened polarization, sustained inflation and the striking down of abortion rights by the U.S. Supreme Court, first-time voters weren’t all young.
“I’m getting ready to retire and I’m watching the economy in decline and all of these unpopular decisions being made,” Steve Dennison, a first-time voter from Pearland, Texas, told VOA, “and I’m thinking, ‘Hey, maybe it’s finally time to vote!’ ”
Dennison, a Republican, said he felt compelled to vote by what he sees as an ineffective president and Congress.
“First, I had to figure out how to work the machine,” he said, laughing, “but once I got the hang of it — yeah, it felt good. I’ll definitely keep voting.”
Experts say voters across the political spectrum have had hot-button issues to motivate them this year.
“Polling had shown Republican enthusiasm was outpacing that of the Democrats,” Collins said, “but right before Election Day, in the final poll, Democratic enthusiasm finally caught up.”
On the Republican side, Collins said, enthusiasm was driven by inflation and the economy. For the Democrats, it was abortion.
“I think a lot of people expected Democrats’ anger over the Supreme Court’s abortion decision to cool off by now because of the passage of time,” Collins said. “But that’s not the case. Exit polling in some swing states showed that for Democrats, abortion was still the No. 1 issue.”
Anne Allen is an educator in New Orleans who tends to vote Democrat. She said she doesn’t always vote in midterms, largely because there are very few competitive races in the state of Louisiana, where Republicans hold nearly all its elected offices.
This year, however, the abortion issue compelled Allen not only to vote but also to campaign for an abortion-rights candidate outside her own district.
“It felt important to stump for a candidate who not only reflects my identity, but whose record reflects my values,” Allen told VOA. “It’s something we talk about a lot in my social circle: which candidates would best protect our rights.”
Enthusiasm varies across country
In the past three decades, the 2018 midterm elections stand out as the high-water mark for voter turnout, with the polarizing nature of then-President Donald Trump motivating record numbers to the polls.
This year, national voter turnout has far eclipsed the midterm elections from 2002 through 2014 but appears likely to fall just short of 2018. However, in states with competitive races or constitutional amendments, such as Pennsylvania, Arizona and Michigan, 2022 turnout has surpassed that of 2018.
“It’s very different from state to state,” Collins said. “In the swing states with close Senate races, we are seeing a record turnout. In other states, it varies.”
In Pennsylvania, for example, which featured a high-profile Senate race, voter turnout outpaced the previous midterm election by a sizable 4 percentage points.
In New Jersey and Maryland, turnout is anticipated to be 10 percentage points lower than 2018. In Mississippi and West Virginia, fewer than 35% of eligible voters participated.
Jalence Isles, a Black business owner in New Orleans, said she was disappointed by voter turnout in her community, where gerrymandering by a Republican-led legislature has contributed to a lack of competitive races.
“It is our civic duty to get out and vote for the candidates and amendments that will make our community better,” she said. “If everyone does that, we can make some of these races competitive, but I think too many people, particularly in the Black community, believe the idea that’s been passed down to them … that their vote doesn’t count. But it does!”
Polarization a factor
Many of the Americans who did vote were motivated by an attempt to remove — or keep out — polarizing figures.
“We need Democrats in Congress voted out now, and we need Biden out in 2024,” said Dennison, the first-time voter from Texas. “He’s a weak leader that acts afraid of other countries.”
Jenna Yee, a teacher in Leander, Texas, said she votes inconsistently, but she voted this time because of local issues, including her school board race with some candidates that she felt had extreme positions.
“I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older or because my opinions are getting stronger,” she told VOA, “but this is the first election in which I really felt like there were multiple items on the ballot that would directly affect my life and my family.”
Jake Fortin, a music teacher in Weiser, Idaho, agreed that keeping extreme candidates out of office is a worthwhile goal. He prefers Democratic candidates, but lives in a conservative part of a Republican state.
“There are a lot of Republicans in Idaho, but not all Republicans are the same,” Fortin said. “Our conservative governor is more of a moderate, while his challenger was more of an extreme, ‘alt-right’ type. There has been a rise of that ideology in Idaho and keeping it out of our politics is an important reason to vote.”
As the dust settles on this election and attention shifts to the presidential election in 2024, both parties will attempt to keep their voters engaged.
Williams, the 18-year-old first-time voter from Illinois, said that won’t be a problem for him.
“I’m hopeful the people we elected will do their best for our city, state and country,” he said, “but either way, I intend to vote in every election from now on, no matter who or what is on the ballot.”