Elections are decided by the people who show up at the polls. In the United States, the oldest citizens are the most likely to cast their ballots, which gives them political clout beyond their numbers alone.
Some 64% of citizens age 65 and older voted in the November 2018 election, the best turnout of any age group. More than half of those ages 45 to 64 also cast a ballot. People under age 45 are much less likely to vote. Just 37% of 25- to 34-year-olds made it to the polls in November 2018. And not even a third of the youngest citizens – ages 18 to 24 – entered a voting booth in 2018.
The voter turnout by age in 2018 was:
- age 18 to 24: 30%
- age 25 to 34: 37%
- age 35 to 44: 44%
- age 45 to 64: 55%
- age 65+: 64%
Here’s a look at some of the reasons senior citizens are more likely to vote than younger people.
Protect Social Security and Medicare
Senior citizens have a vested interest in protecting the valuable benefits they receive from the federal government. If these popular government programs for senior citizens were to change, it would dramatically affect the lives of most retirees.
“It is easier for older people to see the relevance of government in their lives. Two of the biggest federal spending items, Social Security and Medicare, are conferred largely on the basis of age,” says Andrea Louise Campbell, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “For the nonelderly, it can be harder to recognize the relevance of government because it’s hidden behind hard-to-see regulation or hidden in the tax code.”
Every time a person relocates, they must register to vote again using the new address. “When people move, they get kicked out of the registration system and have to re-register. Younger people move much more than older people,” says Stephen Ansolabehere, a professor of government at Harvard University. “Older people are much more likely than the younger people to be registered, and that explains most of the correlation of voting with age.”
Young people who forget or don’t get around to re-registering at their new address may be kept from voting. Leonard Steinhorn, a communication professor at American University and author of “The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy,” says, “Younger people are more mobile, they move more often and they typically change residences more often, so many don’t register as regularly as they may want.”
People who have lived in the same place for an extended period of time typically already know where to go and how to cast a ballot, which makes it easier to repeat the process in future elections. Eitan Hersh, an associate professor of political science at Tufts University and author of “Politics Is for Power,” says, “When people are in a community for a long time as homeowners or long-time residents, they start to feel more connected to the political process. They don’t have to re-register to vote. They don’t have to learn a new polling location or method of casting a ballot. Voting eventually becomes a routine.”
Working-age voters may need to squeeze in a visit to their voting location early in the morning on their way to work or late in the evening. Retirees don’t face the same time crunch.
“If they’re retired, they have a steady income from Social Security – and a lot of incentive to defend it and other public benefits for the aged – as well as more time and flexibility to get to the polls,” says Jacob Hacker, a political science professor and director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University.
Senior citizens are more likely to be longtime residents of their communities, and may be influenced by friends and neighbors of the same age who are also voting. “They generally have more stable lives and deeper ties to local communities, as well as more wealth, especially housing wealth, and owning a home is associated with higher voting rates,” Hacker says. “They’ve had time to figure out how to register and become habitual voters.”
Many older people are also members of organizations that provide information about political issues and encourage them to vote. Campbell says, “Older Americans have mobilizing organizations like AARP who inform them about the role of government and their stake in public affairs. There are few equivalent mobilizing and information-providing organizations for the nonelderly.”
Older people in some states are considerably more likely to vote than others. People age 65 and older are the most likely to vote in Minnesota (78%), Iowa (77%) and Maine (77%). But even in the states with the lowest older voter turnout – Hawaii, New Jersey and New York – more than half of citizens age 65 and older voted.
In terms of the actual number of older people who cast ballots, California tops the list with 3.2 million people age 65 and older who voted in 2018, followed by 2.6 million older voters in Florida and 2.3 million senior-citizen voters in Texas. New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and North Carolina also had more than a million older voters each in November 2018. Alaska, Wyoming and the District of Colombia had the smallest number of senior citizen voters, with fewer than 70,000 older residents voting in each place.