One of the confusing things about American elections is that the outcome is usually determined not by who people decide to vote for, but rather by who decides to vote. And one of the most basic versions of this truism is that older people vote a lot more often and reliably than younger people.
This will surprise no one who follows politics, where the hopes and fears of seniors – pensions, health care, safety – are basic fodder for most campaigns. But what is surprising is the scale of the disparity, as captured in a new study, in voting between older and younger voters.
Over the last four years, voters in Manhattan and across New York State who are over 50 voted in far higher proportions than voters under 50 in every election except the showdown between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, when everyone turned out in roughly equal proportion to their registration.
“While state registration numbers are split 50/50 between voters over 50 years of age and voters under 50, the 50+ tend to vote in far higher numbers than younger voters,” wrote Stephen Graves, of Gotham Government Relations, in his report on the age breakdown in New York voting. “In Presidential years, the voting patterns are similar to the registration ratio. In off year and primary elections, however, the 50+ tend to comprise over 75 percent of all voters.”
Voter registration tilts slightly younger in Manhattan than across the entire state, with 54 percent of Manhattan’s registered voters under 50 and 46 percent over fifty.
Yet the skew is the same. Two thirds of the voters in this year’s primaries and special elections were over fifty. In the last four general elections, starting with the 2018 midterms and continuing through to last year’s mayors race, 70 percent of the voters were over 50.
The report was commissioned by AARP New York, hence the use of 50 as a dividing line (50 or over is their eligibility for membership, although it turns out younger people can actually sign up, too, for the discounts).
“There is so much at stake in this fall’s midterm elections, and it’s clear the 50+ are the dominant voting bloc,” said Beth Finkel, AARP’s New York State director. “The 50+ – who will be the deciders in next month’s elections – have provided a roadmap for candidates, and they want to count on Social Security and Medicare, lower prescription drug prices, and the ability to receive long term care at home.”
This issue list has become almost a default setting for many candidates knowing who is likely to vote. But Finkel acknowledges that while this may strengthen the argument for AARP’s issues in the short run there is a downside to this situation.
“AARP wants to see everyone make their voice heard by voting,” Finkel said. “Historically, older voters turn out in larger numbers – as we certainly saw in this year’s primaries across New York. Younger voters should make their voices heard as well; voter participation is an opportunity for all generations.”
The disparity in civic engagement is hardly just a New York or American challenge. It was widely noted that Liz Truss was selected as the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom by a Conservative Party membership that skewed wildly older than the nation. That did not go well.
Civic experts worry about a vicious cycle in which younger citizens fail to engage and then feel the government is not addressing their concerns, causing even greater estrangement. Citizens Union, the reform group, offers as its unofficial motto: “If you don’t vote, don’t complain.”
The AARP report may also understate the overall gap in participation, because it measures the turnout of registered voters. The report did not look at this, but other studies have found registration is lower among younger people.
There have been some straws in the wind suggesting that the youngest voters are becoming more engaged in this time of high intensity issues. The Harvard Poll of young people reported this week that 40 percent of voters 18 to 24 said in the survey they “definitely” planned to vote, similar to 2018 but well up from earlier midterms.
Young voters told the survey they prefer Democratic control of Congress 57 percent to 31 percent, far higher than their elders. Graves said he was skeptical that the statements of intent would produce real increases in voting. He noted that in 2018 in Brooklyn, a highly Democratic territory, only 14.8 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds turned out in the midterm general election
But even if the Harvard poll does portend more voting by younger people, it would simply mean the very large gap in turnout between the young and old would be slightly reduced.