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Older Americans Will Be a Force in 2022 Elections

Key races, the fate of Congress and new voting laws add up to a crucial voting season

A woman walks into a voting location with a sign that says vote here

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Thirty-six governors’ races. Redistricting. A tied United States Senate and nearly even House of Representatives. Dozens of new state laws revamping how we'll cast our ballots and how they will be counted. A pandemic and economy that repeatedly defy predictions and confound our lives. Americans will have to contend with this complex set of factors as the all-important 2022 midterm election season gets underway.

"I think there's just a whole host of reasons that voters feel unsettled," from COVID to inflation to growing international tensions, says Glen Bolger, a Republican strategist and pollster. Celinda Lake, a veteran Democratic pollster, recalls that "in 2020 people were looking for change. In 2022 I think they'll be looking for results."

Despite changes in how people will be able to vote in some states and the potential for the pandemic to still be a factor, experts predict that the high voter interest of the past few elections will continue. "Turnout is always lower in the midterm than it is in the preceding presidential, but we are in what I think is a high-turnout moment in U.S. elections," says Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Election observers say older Americans again are expected to continue turning out in greater numbers than any other age group, and AARP is mounting a robust voter education campaign in the face of so many voting challenges. "It's going to be important for us to ensure that our constituency understands when to vote, how to vote, where to vote­ — and we're going to put a huge amount of energy into that," says Nancy LeaMond, AARP executive vice president and chief advocacy and engagement officer.

What's at stake

While 2022 doesn't have the cachet of a presidential election year, the very fabric of governing in America will be up for grabs in scores of congressional, gubernatorial and state legislative races. Here's what's at stake:

  • House of Representatives: All 435 seats are up for election, since all members serve two-year terms. Currently, Democrats control this lower chamber of Congress, but just barely — 222 to 212. Historically, the party in power in the White House loses seats in the first midterm election of a president's tenure. Experts say that redistricting is also likely leading to fewer competitive races and political oddsmakers now favor the GOP to take over the lower chamber.
  • Senate: The future of the Senate is a toss-up. This upper chamber is tied politically 50-50,  but because the Democrats control the White House, Vice President Kamala Harris casts the tie-breaking vote for the Democrats in her role as President of the Senate.  Every two years about a third of Senate seats are up, because senators serve six-year terms. This year, 20 seats held by the GOP and 14 by Democrats are in play. As of the beginning of the year, six senators announced their retirement — five Republicans and one Democrat.
  • States: There are 20 Republican and 16 Democratic gubernatorial seats up for election and more than 6,000 state legislative seats. Beyond the usual importance these races carry, the COVID pandemic has showed how pivotal governors and state legislators can be, as these officials made the decisions regarding vaccine distribution, COVID testing, mask wearing, and what types of restrictions to place in their states on commerce, schools and other aspects of life. State lawmakers also have sway over everything from how legislative districts are drawn to myriad state laws governing taxes, health care, insurance, infrastructure projects and public safety.

The COVID effect

The COVID-19 pandemic significantly affected the 2020 election as many candidates suspended in-person campaigning, including rallies and door-to-door canvassing. It also had an impact on the way people voted, with many states increasing the ability of people to vote from home as well as expanding early voting to foster social distancing.

Political analysts say it is still uncertain how the unpredictable coronavirus will affect the 2022 elections, from primaries that begin in March to the November general election.

Lake believes Democrats will do more grassroots campaigning than in 2020: "I think a lot of campaigns are just going to try to do it safely."

Whatever individual campaigns do, LeaMond says AARP is "committed to making sure that people 50-plus can get the information and the insights they need. If they can't go out to a rally then we need to be sure we can get them that information while they stay in their house."

John Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, says the state of the pandemic could well affect how we vote: "If COVID is still lingering throughout 2022, there's going to be more of a demand for mail ballots and early voting. But in a lot of states that's going to be more difficult so it could have a negative impact on turnout."

Recent electoral history indicates that COVID will not stop voters from casting their ballots. In the height of the pandemic in 2020, a record number of voters mailed in their ballots, placed them in a drop box, voted early or went to the polls on Election Day. That high interest in voting continued in 2021; voter turnout in Virginia's highly competitive governor's race last year exceeded participation in the 2017 governor's race by more than 650,000. State residents 50 and older made up more than 71 percent of voters in that race and nearly 73 percent of voters in the New Jersey gubernatorial election.

"It's going to be important for us to ensure that our constituency understands when to vote, how to vote, where to vote­ — and we're going to put a huge amount of energy into that." 

— Nancy LeaMond, AARP executive vice president and chief advocacy and engagement officer

New voting laws

"How the United States conducts its elections has become a significant issue, even though election administrators admirably conducted an extremely high-turnout election under very difficult circumstances in 2020," says Kondik.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks state voting laws, as of December 2021, legislators in 19 states had enacted 34 laws with provisions that would tend to restrict voting access. At the same time, 62 laws that would help to expand voting rights were adopted in 25 states. Hundreds of bills on both sides of the voting issue have been introduced by lawmakers in almost every state, and the debates continue into 2022.

Many of the more restrictive laws impose new barriers to mail voting or the usage of drop boxes, but other new laws include more stringent voter ID requirements and provisions that make it more likely that purges of the voting rolls will sweep up people who really are still eligible to vote in that jurisdiction, explains Jasleen Singh, counsel for the Brennan Center's democracy program. States that have expanded voting opportunities have done so by making it easier to vote, including more early voting, providing greater protection for voters with disabilities, and making it easier to register to vote.

"The result," Singh says, "is that voters' ability to cast a ballot increasingly depends on where they happen to reside."

Dena Bunis covers Medicare, health care, health policy and Congress. She also writes the “Medicare Made Easy” column for the AARP Bulletin. An award-winning journalist, Bunis spent decades working for metropolitan daily newspapers, including as Washington bureau chief for the Orange County Register and as a health policy and workplace writer for Newsday.