The Democratic party regained the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Republicans retained control of the Senate as mid-term election results went late into Tuesday night following record-shattering voter turnout fueled partly by vast numbers of young voters.
Even as the overall returns set the stage for epic conflict or compromise when the new Congress is seated in January, many races were too close to call, with some remaining undecided possibly for days or requiring a run-off because no candidate garnered a majority of votes cast.
Turnout among college students and millennials, especially in early voting, pushed numbers in some areas even higher than during the presidential election two years ago. Voting by absentee and early ballot soared in the 18-29 age bracket in some states with tightly contested races, including Florida, Georgia, Arizona and Texas, according to a USA Today report that also noted that early voting among Illinois youth was 144 percent higher than the 2014 midterm.
It also was a significant election in terms of cultural diversity. Black Democrat gubernatorial candidates Andrew Gillum of Florida and Ben Jealous of Maryland lost their bids. And Stacey Abrams of Georgia, who sought to become the first African-American female governor in America, was trailing slightly at the end of the evening and refused to concede because some votes had not yet been counted.
Meanwhile, Democrat Christine Hallquist, who would have become the nation’s first transgender governor, lost the Vermont gubernatorial race to Republican Phil Scott; Democrat Paulette Jordan was hoping to defeat Republican Brad Little and two other contenders in Idaho to become that state’s first Native American governor; Colorado Democrat Jared Polis became the first openly gay person in U.S. history to be elected governor; and Rhode Island Republican Allan Fung – who became that state’s first mayor of Chinese ancestry – lost his gubernatorial bid to Democrat Gina Raimondo.
“These governors races demonstrate that all politics is local,” observed Maya Wiley, Henry Cohen Professor of Urban Policy and Management at The New School. “Voters vote change when they want it, and voters of color continue to fight simply for the right to exercise the rights of citizenship. Florida and Georgia in particular demonstrate that the color barrier is one of power. Demography is not destiny and we must continue to make all our institutions function to bring us closer together.”
The candidacies of Jordan, Gillum, Abrams and Fung were important signs that people of color are a significant part of increased participation in the political process, said Dr. Monte Randall, dean of academic affairs at College of the Muscogee Nation in Oklahoma. Randall said that as he followed campaigns locally and across the nation and tuned in to election returns on television, the visible and heightened involvement of women and minorities as voters and candidates was “representative of who we are as a nation.”
“It’s indicative of where we’re going as a nation in terms of speaking out,” he said. “We gotta have our voices heard.”
Recently, Randall added, there has been greater involvement in terms of voting, running for office, and political dialogue in Native communities and on the campuses of tribal colleges.
“I think higher education has a lot to do with it, particularly with the implications that a vote has,” he said. “With the cutbacks in education funding and possibly the merger of (the federal departments of) labor and education, voting has a lot to do with the future of resources available to us. I think voters are becoming more educated about the issues.”
Given the numerous squeakers at both state and national levels, it became even more apparent than in the 2016 election that relatively few votes can make a difference.
This week’s outcomes “make it clear that every single vote matters,” said Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean, an associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University who writes about American politics, political psychology and public policy. “It mattered to voters in New York, North Carolina, Florida and Georgia who battled failed ballot machines and conflicting instructions on where to vote. It mattered to people in cities across Connecticut who were turned away from same-day registration. It matters to the many candidates who made history. And it matters to the over 1 million people in Florida who will now have the opportunity to vote because residents approved Amendment 4 to restore voting rights for the formerly incarcerated.”
The next big question, Brown-Dean added, is how to “convert this electoral momentum into substantive policy change.”
Policy also was on Wiley’s mind.
“Higher education needs real policy issues that create more affordability and greater diversity,” she said. “The midterms do not point to any major reckoning with these fundamental questions. Higher education must begin to devise more and greater collaborative efforts to solve these shared problems.”
In doing so, the relevance of lawmakers at the state level will be critical, said Dr. Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto, a lecturer in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin.
“We have to look at the state legislators,” she said. “I know we usually talk about Congress and the Senate and the House, but at the end of the day what really affects higher education the most, especially institutions like mine – which is a state institution – are the state legislature and the governor. We know that, traditionally, Democrats in the governor’s mansion and then the state legislature tend to be more expansive in terms of higher education.”
Younger voters in college, meanwhile, said their influence should not be underestimated.
A huge turnout by younger voters – which likely contributed to the record number of women who will be part of the next Congress – was needed to show that younger voices are just as important as those of older citizens, said Imani Clark, a senior at Winston-Salem State University.
“We need a more diverse Congress,” added Clark. “This day and age, Whites are becoming more of the minority, over the majority, so it is important that all races and ethnicities are represented so that all voices are heard effectively and fairly.”
“However the elections turn out, the increase in young voters ultimately shows this population of voters can and will probably have a significant influence on leadership and key policies for the next two years at the federal, state and local levels of government,” said Maurice Shirley, a doctoral student at New York University. “Young voters should not be discounted and shrugged off. They are showing their engagement in the American democracy and it’s making an impact.”
Oscar Patron, a doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh, agreed, adding that young voters are “in the perfect position to influence the direction of the country’s politics in years to come.”
High voter turnout among young voters also is a result of the recent political climate and the fact that social media makes information very accessible for consumers and encourages those eligible to go out and vote, Patron added.
“As a person with various minoritized identities, I am very happy and excited to see that there are people of color running for various government-related positions, including for governors,” said Patron. “This sends a strong and important message to young people of color, letting us know that we too can be in such position at some point. This is history in the making.”
Executive Editor Jamal Eric Watson contributed to this story.