Do young people vote?

Every now and then, someone asks me whether young voters in Taiwan actually turn out to vote. There is an enormous difference in political preferences between young and old voters, so difference in turnout could matter quite a lot. The polls in the current presidential race show a fairly close contest between Tsai and Han among voters over 40, but Tsai crushes Han among voters in their 20s and 30s. Will those young voters actually show up to the polls?

My stock answer is that we don’t have good data on turnout because Taiwan doesn’t allow exit polling. Conventional polls have their uses, but turnout is one of their glaring weaknesses. Respondents in pre-election surveys overwhelmingly tell you that they will vote, and respondents in post-election polls report much higher turnout behavior than we actually see at the precincts. One problem is that respondents may not accurately report their behavior. A bigger problem is probably that conventional polls do not reach a large number of potential voters. For example, people who work during the evening or do not answer phone calls from strange numbers never enter the sample. Likewise, people who live outside the country but come back to vote just aren’t ever polled. Young people, who tend to live more unsettled lives, are especially prone to being unsampled. Pollsters try to make up for this by weighting the data, but weighting is a second-best solution. The ideal way to study turnout is through an exit poll, in which voters are sampled as they leave the precinct. Exit polling provides an accurate sample of the voting electorate, since it samples from the population of all voters. We can then compare that sample to the full electorate, which we know quite a bit about from aggregate government statistics. Unfortunately, the government decided about 15 years ago that exit polling interferes with election administration and/or gives voters the impression of being harassed at the ballot box. There were two exit polls conducted, one for the 1998 Taipei mayoral election and one for the 2004 presidential election. After the latter exit poll, the Interior Ministry banned any further exit polls. It has not shown any indications of willingness to revisit this decision. Taiwan takes election administration pretty seriously.

However, all is not lost. We actually do have a pretty good look at turnout by sex and age in the 2016 presidential election.  A few years ago, Taiwan passed a law promoting gender equality, so all government agencies have to keep tabs and write reports on the current status of gender breakdowns both in their own work and in the populations they serve, and they have to show that they are trying to address any current gender discrimination. The Central Election Commission used this mandate to commission a study on turnout differences among men and women. The study was conducted by my close friend Chuang Wen-jong 莊文忠, at Shih Hsin University and our mentor Hung Yung-tai 洪永泰, who is emeritus at NTU. They sampled 230 neighborhoods (村里), which collectively had just over 200,000 voters. They were then given special permission – since this study was for the purpose of fulfilling a legal mandate – to look at the demographics of who turned out in these neighborhoods. When you go to vote, your ID is checked against a voter roll which contains your name, address, sex, and date of birth. They did not collect names or addresses (for both privacy and budgetary reasons), but they did get age, sex, and whether or not someone picked up a ballot for about 200,000 randomly sampled voters. (Note: They did not get any information on how the person voted. We didn’t learn anything in this study about whether they voted for Tsai, Chu, Soong, or cast an invalid vote. This study was useful, but we could learn a lot more from a true exit poll.)


Before I tell you about the results, let’s get a little context. What does the USA look like? Michael McDonald (University of Florida and fellow UCSD grad) has put together some nice charts about turnout in American elections, and I’ve copied the relevant chart below. Ignore the midterm elections and try to focus your attention on the presidential elections by connecting the top dots in each zig-zag line. Turnout in the oldest group (age 60 and up) is usually about 30% higher than turnout in the youngest group (age 18-29). This is an enormous difference, and American politicians have traditionally responded by catering to the wishes of senior citizens while ignoring the demands of young voters. In some cases (most famously former Florida Senator Claude Pepper), this was explicit and unapologetic.


How about Taiwan? Is there an age gap? If so, is it as dramatic as the American age gap?

Since this study is officially about gender, I should probably start by noting that in the 2016 presidential election, they found that turnout among women was 67.2% and only 64.8% among men. That is, women’s turnout was higher by 2.4%.

Figure 5.2 (p81) is the essence of their research. (I can’t figure out how to copy it, but it’s a pretty chart. Download the report and look at it!) This figure shows turnout among men and women from each age. First-time voters tend to vote at slightly higher rates with the lowest turnout rates occurring in the mid 20s. From this trough, there is a long increase until the peak in the late 60s and early 70s. From there, turnout rates decline dramatically, falling much quicker among old women than old men.

There are no numbers on this chart, so you have to eyeball things. To get more concrete numbers, I downloaded their data from the CEC website and calculated some group means. Turnout for the full sample was 63.1%. To compare directly to the American data, I cut the data into five groups:

Age group Turnout % of electorate % of actual voters
20-29 52.9 17.1 14.3
30-39 54.9 20.3 17.6
40-49 61.3 19.1 18.5
50-59 69.7 19.3 21.3
60 and up 73.6 24.2 28.2

The difference in turnout between the youngest group and the oldest group was 20.7%. This is a large gap, but not nearly as large as the roughly 30% age gap found in American elections. Still, while there are only about 40% more eligible voters in the oldest group than the youngest group, the oldest group produced nearly twice as many actual votes as the youngest group. That’s a pretty big effect.

These five age categories are useful for comparing Taiwan to the USA, but lumping all senior citizens together in one enormous group hides quite a bit of variation. As Figure 5.2 shows, turnout for some ages is higher that the age group average of 73.6% and markedly lower for other ages. So instead of five groups, let’s cut the data into fifteen groups.

Age group Turnout % of electorate % of actual voters
20-24 53.2 8.8 7.4
25-29 52.5 8.3 6.9
30-34 53.9 9.9 8.4
35-39 55.7 10.4 9.2
40-44 59.5 9.3 8.7
45-49 63.0 9.8 9.8
50-54 68.0 10.1 10.9
55-59 71.5 9.3 10.5
60-64 75.0 8.0 9.5
65-69 78.7 5.2 6.4
70-74 78.6 3.6 4.5
75-79 74.4 3.2 3.8
80-84 66.9 2.2 2.4
85-89 56.2 1.3 1.2
90 and up 40.2 0.6 0.4

The lowest turnout is found in the 25-29 group, at 52.5%, while the highest turnout is in the 65-69 group, at 78.7%. While there are about 60% more eligible voters in the 25-29 group, they only produce about 8% more votes.


We should probably note that these data are from the 2016 election, which came in wake of the 2014 Sunflower Movement. Compared to other election years, young people were probably extremely motivated and excited in 2016. That is, there is good reason to suspect that the age gap was larger in previous elections (and that it will be larger this year).

Alternatively, 2016 had relatively low turnout compared to past presidential elections. Official turnout was 66.3% in 2016, while the highest turnout was 82.7% in 2000. The only way to get to a number like 82.7% is for turnout to go up in all groups, but since there isn’t as much room to increase in the older groups, the increase almost certainly had to be disproportionally concentrated among the younger cohorts. That is, mathematical necessities suggest that there is good reason to suspect that the age gap was smaller in high turnout years like 2000 and 2004 than in low turnout years like 2016.

In conclusion, who the hell knows what turnout among different age groups looked like in previous elections?!? This is why we need data.


What we can say with a reasonable amount of confidence is that there was a sizeable gap – about 25% – in turnout in 2016 between older and younger voters.


5 Responses to “Do young people vote?”

  1. Jerry Says:

    I thought Figure 1-2 on Page 13 of the report already shows turnout by sex for the 2016 presidential election? There was almost no difference between the sexes, with turnout for males at 66.22% and for females at 66.33%. The figures you quoted (67.2% for females v. 64.8% for males) were probably from the sampled and re-weighted data they’ve received.

    Also I was really surprised at the low turnouts among first-time voters in 2016. The common rhetoric from political pundits was that droves of young voters showed up at bus/train stations on the election day and gave Tsai a boost in the polls.

    • frozengarlic Says:

      Good catch! I glossed over the fact that they already had aggregate numbers for turnout by sex. If they can do that, it wouldn’t be that much harder to also compile aggregate numbers for turnout by age. However, I guess there is no official mandate to understand differences by age, even though they are much more consequential than differences by sex.

  2. 台灣的年輕人投票嗎? | Says:

    […] 不同年齡層的投票率與傾向是否有差別,在政治學術與實務上,都是重要的問題。江湖傳言道:「年輕人不投票」,究竟只是人云亦云,或是真有實據?來看中研院政治學者凍蒜先生的分析《Do young people vote?》(連結)。 […]

  3. Rebecca Gardner Says:

    I was surprised when you talked about how the oldest and youngest groups of voters have a turnout difference of 20.7%. I think that the upcoming 2020 elections will be the most important in a while due to the crazy things that have been happening in the world so far this year. Reading your article made me feel motivated to generate young voter interest in the campaigns I support!

    • frozengarlic Says:

      I assume you are referring to the upcoming American general elections. I don’t have any data at hand, but I assume the turnout gap between younger and older voters is even larger in the USA than in Taiwan for the simple reason that Taiwan has much higher overall turnout. In other words, even among low-propensity voters, the floor here is much higher. In the USA, turnout among some groups is downright miserable.

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