by Ronald Brownstein
In an epic struggle over voting rights, the future political influence of the diverse generations now aging into the electorate could pivot on the fate of legislation the House is expected to consider this week.
Even as Republican-controlled states, drawing on former President Donald Trump’s groundless claims of massive fraud in 2020, are advancing a wave of proposals making it tougher to vote, House Democrats this week will consider HR 1, sweeping legislation that would establish a nationwide baseline of voting rights.
Although many of the provisions in HR 1 would ease the way for more young people to participate in politics, particularly important may be its measures requiring every state to create systems for automatic, same-day and online voter registration. That could significantly reduce what many experts consider the biggest barrier to more young people voting in American elections: a complex and varying registration system that far fewer younger than older voters have been able, or willing, to navigate.
That barrier is often especially daunting for younger voters of color, who represent a growing share of the nation’s emerging electorate. In fact, in many of the states where Republicans are moving most aggressively to erect new obstacles to voting — including Georgia, Arizona, Texas and likely Florida — young people of color composed a clear majority of everyone who has turned 18 since the 2016 election, according to census figures.
The goal of a democracy should be that the people who are participating in it look a lot like the people who live in it. Right now, the electorate is older, Whiter and wealthier than the population writ large.
Ben Wessel, executive director, NextGen America
If that barrier is entrenched, it could suppress for years the political emergence of these younger generations. Conversely, advocates argue, the nationwide standards of voting and registration rights established in HR 1 could greatly accelerate the pace at which millennials, Generation Z and eventually their younger siblings — the most racially and religiously diverse generations in American history — achieve political clout commensurate with their growing numbers.
The nationwide floor of voting rights in HR 1 would “make the electorate look more like the population,” says Ben Wessel, executive director of NextGen America, a group that mobilizes young voters for progressive causes. “The goal of a democracy should be that the people who are participating in it look a lot like the people who live in it. Right now, the electorate is older, Whiter and wealthier than the population writ large. And this rights that wrong.”
While HR 1 is certain to pass the House — every House Democrat has endorsed it — it is also virtually certain to die beneath a Republican filibuster in the Senate unless Democrats vote to eliminate or retrench that legislative tactic. (At this point, two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, are opposed to ending or curtailing the filibuster.) That decision could shape not only the balance of power between the parties through the coming decade, but between the generations as well.
“That rising American electorate, however you want to characterize it, their voice is very dependent on being able to access these baseline standards when it comes to registering and voting across the country,” Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland, the chief sponsor of HR 1, told me.
Though multiple studies and investigations have found that voter fraud is extremely rare, Republicans for more than a decade have sought to impose tougher restrictions on voting across a wide range of states. Their political assumption has been that Republicans benefit when turnout is lower, because their base of middle-aged and older Whites are often the most reliable voters. Ironically, Trump’s success in turning out huge numbers of previously nonvoting Whites (especially those without college degrees) has demolished the theory that higher turnout always benefits Democrats.
But that hasn’t stopped the GOP offensive against voting access; instead, with Trump conditioning most Republicans to vote solely on Election Day itself, state Republicans are targeting the voting tools that encourage participation by Democratic-leaning constituencies of young people and minorities — among them mail ballots and early voting days. Trump, in his speech Sunday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, signaled his support for nationwide rules that would severely restrict the former and ban the latter.
The immediate context for the surge of proposals in Republican-controlled states that would make it more difficult to vote or register is Trump’s unfounded claims of massive fraud in the 2020 election, which polls consistently show about three-fourths of Republican voters say they believe, despite the rejection of his supposed “evidence” by courts across the country. But the larger context is that this ferocious struggle over access to the ballot — what some analysts consider the broadest assault on voting rights since the Jim Crow era in the segregated South — is occurring at a moment of profound generational and racial transition. Particularly in rapidly changing states across the Sun Belt, the voter suppression measures Republicans are advancing amount to stacking sandbags against a rising demographic tide.
Younger population edging out its elders
The baby boom generation — which is predominantly White because America admitted very few immigrants from 1924 through 1965 — is ending a nearly four-decade run as the dominant generation in the US electorate. Baby boomers have made up the largest generation of eligible voters since 1980, according to calculations by the nonpartisan States of Change project, which studies voting trends and demographic change.
But in 2024, the group projects, the diverse younger generations of Americans born in 1981 or after — millennials and Generation Z — for the first time will represent a much larger share of eligible voters (nearly 45%) than the baby boomers and “silent generation,” born before 1964 (who will compose about 35% of voters).
By 2028, millennials and Generation Z will make up almost exactly half of eligible voters, and those born before 1964 will fall below 3 in 10.
The forward edge of this transition is already reshaping the electorate, particularly in many of the Sun Belt states where Republicans now control state government with a coalition that revolves around older, non-college and non-urban Whites. From 2016 through 2020, a clear majority of the young people who turned 18 — and thus became eligible to vote — were people of color in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Arizona and Texas, according to calculations provided to me by demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.
All of these numbers point toward a potential shift of political influence. But the impact of these burgeoning generations is diluted because they don’t turn out to vote at near the rate of the oldest voters: The States of Change project, for instance, forecasts that even though young people born after 1981 will exceed older Americans born before 1964 among eligible voters in 2024, the older group, because of much higher turnout, will still equal them as a share of actual voters.
Wessel, whose group focuses on turning out younger voters, says the complex voter registration rules, which vary from state to state, are a key reason for that disparity. Census figures from 2020 aren’t yet available, but in 2018, only about half of eligible young adults aged 18-24 were registered to vote, compared with three-fourths of seniors and around 7 in 10 of those aged 45-64.
“Having to register to vote is one of the biggest barriers to getting young people to participate in our elections,” Wessel says. “Registration is an intentionally complicated process in many states … for young people who are itinerant, who aren’t used to filling out government forms like this … who are intimidated by not wanting to screw something up in general — all of which defines people who are just entering adulthood.”
Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who’s been a leading proponent of registration revisions, agrees. “So many times, when you have students and young people and they are new at this … you just have to make it easier,” she told me.
For Klobuchar and other Democrats, the answer is the three big registration mandates in HR 1 and its Senate equivalent, S 1. The bills would require every state to adopt “automatic voter registration,” in which eligible adults are automatically registered to vote whenever they come in contact with government agencies, usually the department of motor vehicles. It would also require every state to permit “same day registration,” in which voters can register when they show up to cast their ballots, either during an early voting period (which is also mandated by the bill) or on Election Day. Finally, it would also require every state to allow voters to register online.
All but 11 states already permit online registration (though the holdouts include the key states of Texas and North Carolina). But only about 20 states now offer either automatic or same-day voter registration. Most of the states that make these options available — particularly the automatic voter registration — lean toward the Democrats.
Georgia and automatic registration
One exception to this pattern has been Georgia, a changing but historically red state, which provides for automatic registration (though not same-day registration). Last October, the state’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, issued a news release celebrating the milestone that the state had reached an all-time high of nearly 7.6 million adults registered to vote; automatic registration through the state’s Department of Driver Services accounted for more than 5 million of those voters, his office reported.
Data provided to me by Catalist, a Democratic targeting firm, show that the number of registered voters has grown substantially for all racial groups in Georgia since the state adopted automatic voter registration in 2016. But under the automatic system, new registrations have grown much faster for Blacks, Asian Americans and Hispanics than for Whites: From 2016 to 2020, the state added roughly twice as many new Black voters and almost 10 times as many new Hispanic voters as it had from 2010 through 2016, the Catalist figures show.
Automatic registration does not account for all of that change — state Democrats led by 2018 gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams have mounted a sustained effort to register and mobilize voters in recent years — but it has eased the process. Even Raffensperger noted in his release last fall: “The continued growth of Georgia’s registered voting population is a testament to the simple and easy registration options the Secretary of State’s office provides to Georgia voters, including automated registration through DDS.”
What we saw this past election was confusion and chaos caused by inconsistent standards and last-minute changes to established election laws by state officials and activist judges. It’s now more clear than ever that there is a serious need for major reforms to our election systems.
US Sen. Rick Scott, a Florida Republican
These racial trends may help explain why a committee in the Republican-controlled Georgia Senate voted last Friday to end the state’s automatic voter registration system. (The same committee voted to revoke the state’s law allowing any voter to cast an absentee ballot on request. On Monday, the Republican-controlled Georgia House of Representatives approved a separate slate of voting restrictions, including new voter ID requirements for mail ballots and cutbacks in the Sunday early voting “souls to the polls” option popular with African American churches.)
Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, along with several GOP colleagues, recently proposed legislation that would ban any state from using automatic voter registration for federal elections.
“What we saw this past election was confusion and chaos caused by inconsistent standards and last-minute changes to established election laws by state officials and activist judges,” Scott insisted in a statement. “It’s now more clear than ever that there is a serious need for major reforms to our election systems.”
Yet the states that have implemented automatic and same-day voter registration have mostly seen positive results. In a 2019 study, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School concluded that states with automatic registration saw consistent boosts in the share of eligible voters who registered; another study, by the University of Southern California and California Civic Engagement Project, found more uneven impacts, with little change in some places, but clear positive impacts in other states. Political scientist Michael McDonald of the University of Florida, a leading student of voting patterns, told me in an email that “numerous studies have found about a 5-7 point voter turnout increase” in states that use same-day registration.
An unequal opportunity?
Colorado is one of the few states that already offer automatic, same-day and online registration, the trifecta of revisions that HR 1 would mandate. Secretary of State Jena Griswold told me that 90% of eligible voters were registered for the 2020 election, an extraordinary number. (Roughly three-fourths of eligible Colorado voters cast ballots last fall, among the highest turnout rates in the country, according to McDonald’s U.S. Elections Project.) Though 2020 figures aren’t yet available, the Census Bureau found that in 2018, the share of young people aged 18-24 who were registered in Colorado greatly exceeded the national average.
“It’s 2021, and I think Americans expect things to be accessible,” Griswold says. “Automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration and online voter registration are a modernization of our elections that Americans should expect. Being able to sign up to exercise your constitutional right to vote should be accessible, and that’s what those three programs do.”
Like Griswold, Myrna Perez, director of the Brennan Center’s voting rights and election program, says the registration policies in HR1 could work together synergistically. “One of the things to remember is just like one anti-voter policy is not going to stop everyone from voting, one pro-voter policy isn’t going to be the magic bullet that gets everybody voting,” she says. “You need different policies because different communities are different.”
Klobuchar, for instance, notes that of these policies, “Same-day registration particularly helps young people who haven’t voted before and don’t have a registration that’s always been in place for, say, 20 years before.”
If you happen to be a person of color voting in Alabama you should have the same access as in Colorado.
Jena Griswold, Colorado secretary of state
Estimates vary on how many new voters could be added to the rolls if the registration provisions in HR 1 become nationwide law. But evidence from the states that have adopted these rules is prompting some dramatic forecasts. Jacob Hacker, a Yale University political scientist known for his writing on political polarization, recently estimated that the HR 1 changes could lead to as many as 50 million more registered voters; the Brennan Center has also concluded gains of that magnitude are possible, though other factors would matter too, such as whether Americans remain as engaged in politics as they have been during the past few years, notes Perez.
Looming over every aspect of this debate is the profound generational and racial transition in which the diverse cohorts of young people born since 1981 now constitute a majority of the American population — but still a distinct minority of voters. With a nationwide baseline of guaranteed registration and voting rights, those emerging generations could rapidly reshape the electorate over the next decade. But their influence could grow much more slowly, and unevenly, if they face barriers to participation across most of the red states — which include many of the Sun Belt states at the epicenter of the demographic change.
For that reason, the split-level struggle over access to the vote — with Republicans in the states mostly seeking to limit it while Democrats in Washington try to expand it — returns to a core question that is becoming even more urgent as the nation inexorably grows more diverse: Will all Americans have equal opportunity to participate in the democracy?
“We are talking about Americans’ constitutional rights, and I believe that all Americans should have access to exercising those rights,” says Griswold. “If you happen to be a person of color voting in Alabama you should have the same access as in Colorado. It’s not about the state: It’s about the voter. Your ability to vote shouldn’t depend on your ZIP code, your state, the amount of money in your bank account, the color of your skin, or your gender or anything else.”
Ronald Brownstein is a CNN senior political analyst, regularly appearing across the network’s programming and special political coverage.