The Emerging Leaders Initiative of Utah’s mission is simple: get Generation Z and millennials involved in their communities, from voting to community service to running for office. We recently surveyed our audience in order to better understand what mobilizes young Utah voters and how they chose their candidates in 2020. We also examined demographic data from the state voter file to glean insight into how voter participation — specifically young voters — in 2020 compared to the 2019 municipal general election.
During the 2020 general elections, voters ages 18-34 made up 27% of the general electorate, more than doubling the 13% young voters represented during the 2019 municipal elections, though still lagging behind our 32% share of registered voters, leaving room for improvement. Amongst this age group, voter turnout in Utah increased more than in all but two other states from 2016, and composed 70% of new Utah voters in 2020.
2020’s young voters identified as more politically independent than other demographics. Just as many were unaffiliated as registered Republican — 41% — while a wide majority (60%) of the state’s general electorate are registered Republican. The ideological makeup of initiative’s respondents aligned closely with the breakdown of the statewide 18-34 electorate, yet nearly 60% voted for Biden and only 15% for Trump, leaning more heavily against the incumbent than their cohort nationally.
Some clear themes emerged as initiative respondents explained their presidential vote decisions. Most significant was a desire for stability and good governance. Several responses expressed concern over Trump’s idiosyncratic leadership. Additionally, they emphasized the importance of strong environmental policies, equity and social justice, while also advocating for loosening business regulations and reducing the size of government, highlighting what may be seen as traditionally conflicting ideological priorities and emphasizing the independent nature of this block.
More than 80% of respondents indicated their intent to participate in the 2021 municipal elections. While we recognize the Emerging Leaders Initiative’s audience may be more engaged than the average voter, we hope to see this momentum among 18-34 year olds continue in the off-year.
Similar patterns emerged in how young voters choose their prospective municipal leaders. They again prioritized good governance and leadership, and indicated that they look to these officials to protect natural spaces while promoting good air quality and strong environmental policies.
But there were other policies relevant to municipal leaders that hit closer to home. Affordable housing is of utmost importance as young Utahns are frequently priced out of the real estate market. They also desire transportation alternatives, including access to public transit, and are cognizant of the impacts of sprawl and land use policies. Local candidates appealing to Gen Z and millennial voters should emphasize these issues in their campaigns.
COVID-19 response was also top of mind: respondents care about the economic effects of the pandemic and future recovery. They prioritized small business recovery programs and also highlighted property rights as an important issue that came to light throughout the pandemic.
Utah’s young voters are a force to be reckoned with. As the nation’s youngest state, our cohort has an opportunity to significantly influence electoral outcomes as more 18-34 year olds make it a habit to vote, even, or perhaps especially, in off-years. Last year saw record young voter participation, and we encourage our peers to continue this trend in what are typically low turnout elections.
Young Utah voters — and leaders — have the potential to reshape politics in the state. We share many traditional Utah values, and we also value clean air, open space protection, smart growth and social equality. Most importantly, we seek sensible, principled and representative leadership.
2020 demonstrated that candidates can’t rely on the support of millennial and Gen Z voters based solely on party politics. Candidates should heed this call and adapt if they hope to win over this growing segment of voters.
2021 municipal candidates, take note!
Nate Blouin is the chairman-elect and voting director and Kyrene Gibb is the secretary-elect and research director of the Emerging Leaders Initiative of Utah.