This year’s primary election saw the lowest turnout of young voters since Colorado began tracking primary voter ages in 2018, with experts speculating the two major parties are failing to engage the youth.   

Only 4.3% of the 1.235 million ballots cast last month were from Coloradans age 24 or younger, according to data from the Secretary of State’s Office. That’s a huge dip from 5.9% in the primary for the 2020 presidential election. While presidential elections often inspire more engagement, this year's youth turnout is still less than the 2018 primary, which saw 4.8% of voters age 25 or younger.

Though the age categories in 2018 and 2022 — both non-presidential election years — don't exactly align, almost 3,000 more young voters cast a ballot in 2018 than in 2022, despite having 59,000 fewer voters overall four years ago.

The age group that saw the biggest drop in turnout this year is 25 to 34, which went from representing 11.5% of voters in 2020 to only 8.8% in 2022.

Older age groups did not see such a dramatic voter turnout drop between 2020 and 2022. In fact, despite having 342,000 fewer overall voters this year, the number of voters age 75 and older only decreased by 1,309, going from 205,025 in 2020 to 203,716 in 2022 — meaning people age 75 and older made up 16.5% of voters in 2022, compared to 13% in 2020.

Older Coloradans were the only age group to increase in voter representation from 2020 to 2022. In both primaries, voters age 65 to 74 made up the plurality, accounting for 21.6% and 24.7% of ballots cast in 2020 and 2022, respectively.

The percentage of voters aged 55 to 64 remained steady from 2020 to 2022, accounting for 20.9% and 20.7% respectively, while every younger age group decreased significantly, including 45- to 54-year-old voters going from 14.5% to 13.5% and 35- to 44-year-old voters going from 12.7% to 11.5%.

Sara Loflin, executive director of the political nonprofit Progress Now Colorado, attributed the decline of young voters this year to the lack of progressive candidates on the primary ballot. Young voters are overwhelming liberal, with 55% of 18- to 29-year-olds preferring Democratic political control and only 34% preferring Republican control, according to a 2022 poll from Harvard University. 

“I think the biggest reason for this was a lack of contests on the progressive side,” Loflin said. “Young voters will turn out in November.”

Major offices, including governor, secretary of state and U.S. senator, offered sole candidates on the Democratic side last month, meaning the primary contests for those statewide races occurred only in the GOP ballot. Of the 82 state legislative races, only 23 had contested primaries — 16 of which featured competing Republican candidates. 

Joe Jackson, executive director of the Colorado Republican Party, offered a bleaker explanation for the lack of young voters, suggesting a disinterest in the political process due to current events, such as rising costs in Colorado and nationwide.

“Maybe they couldn't afford the gas to return their ballot due to the failed energy policies supported by Michael Bennet and Jared Polis,” Jackson said.

The primary election came at a time of record-setting inflation, spiking prices of homes and a general sense of how unaffordable living in Colorado has become, particularly in metro Denver. People who are struggling financially are less likely to engage in politics. A 2020 report found that low-income Americans vote about 20 percentage points lower than high-income Americans.

However, Morgan Carroll, chair of the Colorado Democratic Party, said she expects other current events will spark more political action from young people in the general election. Carroll pointed to ongoing climate change concerns and the Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn federal protections for abortion.

Carroll said Colorado’s Democratic party is “committed to energizing young voters” by focusing on these issues. 

"We’re the only party offering young voters candidates who will act on reproductive justice, take comprehensive action on climate change, and pass measures to make Colorado affordable,” Carroll said. “We’re unified behind strong Democratic candidates and we look forward to strong turnout in the fall.”

In 2021, New Era Colorado — a nonprofit focused on youth political advocacy — found that young people in Colorado are most concerned about the cost of higher education, student debt, housing access, public health, voting access, and advancing racial, reproductive and climate issues.

While the outcomes of the primary election could determine local policy on many of those issues, New Era said the decrease in young voters may be due to the unique barriers young people face when it comes to participating in elections, such as moving frequently and not being targeted and engaged by political campaigns.

New Era called Colorado’s young adults “untapped potential” in local politics, making up one-third of the electorate and the largest and most diverse voting bloc in Colorado.

“Young voters want a say in how we shape the future of our state, especially on local levels where they can see change happen,” said Nicole Hensel, executive director of New Era Colorado. “Both candidates and those already in office need to center young people’s priorities in decision-making processes to build the trust and sense of hope needed to turn young voters out.”

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