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Older Americans Are a Force in 2022 Midterm Elections

Key races and the fate of Congress are at stake in Tuesday’s contests across the country

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Thirty-six governor’s races. A tied U.S. Senate and a nearly even U.S. House of Representatives. Thousands of state and local officials on ballots across the country. Millions of Americans age 50+ have already voted in the all-important 2022 midterm elections, and millions more are poised to go to the polls beginning Tuesday morning.

Despite changes in how people are able to vote in some states, experts have predicted 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.

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Election observers say older Americans are again expected to turn out in greater numbers than any other age group, and AARP has mounted a robust voter education campaign in the face of significant voting challenges.

"Election after election, Americans age 50 and over cast the majority of ballots, and I don’t expect that to be any different this year," says Nancy LeaMond, AARP executive vice president and chief advocacy and engagement officer.  "Older Americans understand the importance of exercising their right to vote.  They are concerned about a host of issues that affect their daily lives and the future for their children and grandchildren."

Older voters have historically voted in greater numbers than any other age group. In the most recent midterm elections, in 2018, turnout was 56 percent among voters ages 45 to 59 and 66 percent among voters 60 and older, compared with 33 percent of those ages 18 to 29.

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 members serve two-year terms. Currently, Democrats control this lower chamber of Congress, but just barely — 220 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 has also led to fewer competitive races, and most election polls now favor the GOP to take over the lower chamber.
  • Senate: The future of the Senate is considered a toss-up. Congress’ upper chamber is tied politically at 50-50, but because the Democrats control the White House, Vice President Kamala Harris can cast 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. Six senators will be retiring at the end of this year — 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 showed how pivotal governors and state legislators can be, since they 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 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 making it easier for people to vote from home and expanding early voting to foster social distancing.

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Recent electoral history indicates that COVID has not stopped voters from casting their ballots. In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, record numbers of voters mailed in their ballots, placed them in drop boxes, voted early or went to the polls on Election Day. That high interest in voting continued in 2021; turnout in Virginia’s highly competitive governor’s race last year exceeded participation in the 2017 governor’s race by more than 650,000 voters. Residents 50 or older made up more than 71 percent of voters in that race. In the New Jersey gubernatorial election, nearly 73 percent of voters were 50 or older.

Early reports from across the country show that the trend toward increased early in-person as well as voting by mail is continuing during the midterms. The United States Election Project, which tracks voting patterns, reports that more than 40 million Americans have already voted this fall. In Georgia, for example, more than 2.5 million votes have already been cast — about 400,000 more than at this point in the 2018 election.

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New voting laws

The 2022 vote has been affected by the overhaul of voting laws in virtually every state. “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 use of drop boxes, but other new laws include more stringent voter ID requirements and provisions making it more likely that purges of the voting rolls will sweep up people who 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 offering 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.

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