By: Kevin Morris (@ktnmorris), Voting Rights Researcher, Brennan Center for Justice
After Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won one of the the most surprising primary upset in decades, pundits scrambled to make sense of her win and what it meant for the future of the Democratic Party. Sadly, however, takes travel halfway around the world before voter file analysis is available. Using voter file data, we can analyze her victory in depth and in the context of other progressive over-performers: Suraj Patel and Adem Bunkeddeko. The data suggest these impressive electoral performances were propelled in large part by young voters. The election of Ocasio-Cortez shows that when young people engage, they have the power to make a real difference. The problem, though, is that some states, like New Hampshire for example, have passed legislation making it harder for students to participate and vote.
The Case of New York
New York State lags behind its peers in making it easier to access the ballot box: The state does not have automatic voter registration, election day registration, or even early voting. Voters wanting to change their party affiliation have to make that switch more than eight months before the election (no other state comes close). Primary elections are scheduled for late June, when many students are away from the summer or not plugged into their school communities (where get-out-the-vote operations are most robust). And unlike any other state in the country, New York has different dates for local and federal primaries which adds a further layer of confusion.
Despite those barriers, the data we analyzed show young people turned out for the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th district (spanning neighborhoods in the Bronx and Queens) on June 26. It’s likely that their support made the difference in her double digit triumph over the incumbent, Representative Joseph Crowley.
Ocasio-Cortez won nearly nine out of ten of election districts where the average age of the voter was below 55, but she netted less than 40 percent of those where the average voter was 55 or older. Younger voters still had relatively low turnout rates: just 11 percent of active registered Democrats in the 14th under the age of 40 voted in the primary, compared to 15 percent of voters 40 and older. However, because their support for Ocasio-Cortez was so concentrated, even this turnout rate likely had an impact on her victory.