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Young People Embraced Voting by Mail, but Improvements Still Needed to Engage All Youth

A close look at the reasons why some youth didn’t register, or registered but didn’t vote, suggests needed improvements in electoral administration and outreach.

In the days and weeks after the 2020 election, CIRCLE’s initial analysis of young people’s participation highlighted a likely historic level of youth voter turnout. That was especially heartening in an election shaped by limitations to outreach and changes to electoral processes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, as we turn our attention from what happened in November 2020 to why it happened, our post-election youth survey sheds light on some of the dynamics that led to strong youth voting. Our research also suggests ways in which efforts to prepare youth to vote may have fallen short, and ongoing barriers and inequities to address in 2022 and beyond.

Our major findings include:

  • In an election where there was a massive shift to mail-in voting, efforts to make this voting method more accessible were largely successful. More than 90% of young people who voted absentee or by mail said they found voting by mail (VBM) easy or very easy, and more than 90% said they saw at least some information about VBM.
  • The experience with mail-in voting wasn’t equally smooth for all young people: though a small percentage of young people said they found it difficult, youth of color were more likely than white youth to say so. Among young people who did not cast a ballot, youth of color were 8 percentage points more likely than white youth  (18% vs. 10%) to cite absentee ballot problems or other election administration issues as the reason they didn’t cast a ballot.
  • The youngest eligible voters (ages 18-19) were also more likely to say they found voting by mail hard, and among those who didn’t cast a ballot, they were slightly more likely to cite a lack of information or concerns about COVID-19—which could potentially mean they did not see information about voting safely by mail—as reasons for not voting.
  • Among young people who didn’t register to vote, 44% cited either not knowing how, running out of time, or having trouble with the application, which suggests that easier and more accessible election administration is still necessary.

About the Poll: The CIRCLE/Tisch College Post-Election Poll was a web survey fielded from November 3 to December 2, 2020 By Gallup, Inc. The survey covered adults between the ages of 18 and 29 who were eligible to vote in the United Stated in the 2020 General Election. Sample was drawn from the Gallup Panel, a probability-based panel that is representative of the U.S. adult population, and from the Dynata Panel, a non-probability panel. A total of 2,645 eligible adults completed the survey. Of the total completes, 1,138 were from the Gallup Panel and 1,507 were from the Dynata Panel. Unless stated otherwise, for the sake of this analysis, ‘youth’ refers to those ages 18- to 29-years old. The margin of sampling error, taking into account the design effect from weighting, is ± 3.7 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Margins of error for racial and ethnic subgroups range from +/-7.6 to 9.4 percentage points.

Youth of Color More Likely to Cite Election Administration Barriers to Voting

The COVID-19 pandemic encouraged many states to expand and encourage voting by mail.  That was a concern for youth engagement; as newer voters, young people had much less experience with VBM. However our research found that youth voted early/absentee in large numbers, and according to our post-election analysis of AP VoteCast data, 70% of youth voted by mail or during early, in-person voting.

The efforts of various election administrators and other stakeholders to share information about VBM and to make it easy and accessible to youth appears to have been largely successful. More than 90% of young people said they saw some or a lot of information about how to vote by mail, and more than 95% of those who employed this voting method said they found it easy. That said, because only youth who successfully voted by mail answered whether they found it easy or difficult, it’s likely many other youth found it difficult and, as a result, did not choose this voting method or did not vote at all.

Additionally, our data suggests that most of those who voted in-person did so because of comfort and experience, rather than obstacles to submitting mail ballots or not understanding the process. More than half (59%) of young people who voted in person said they did so because they prefer it, and 39% because it’s what they had done in the past. (Some likely said both, as respondents could select multiple reasons why they decided to vote in person.)

That said, 36% of young people who voted in person said that they didn’t trust the VBM process. That includes 55% of young people who voted in person for President Trump, who frequently cast doubt on the security of mail-in voting throughout the election. Another 22% of youth who voted in person  said they weren’t sure how to vote by mail, forgot to mail in their ballot, or did not have the option to vote absentee. These are challenges for election administrators and other voting-related policymakers to meet head on.

Why Some Youth Who Registered Didn’t Vote

While this data is encouraging overall, and a testament to the tireless work of many advocates, organizers, and administrators, there were still disparities in ease of voting and access to information. One concerned age: 15% of 18- and 19-year-olds (compared to 9% of all youth) said they hadn’t seen information about voting by mail. Among “undermobilized” young people who registered to vote but didn’t end up casting a ballot, 20% of youth in this age group cited a lack of information. Another 19% (7 points higher than all youth) of young people ages 18-19 cited concerns about COVID-19 as a reason for not voting, which also suggests they may have lacked information about safe alternatives like casting an absentee ballot. While the pandemic, including its disruptions to education, were an understandable impediment, these disparities underscores the need for civic education that explicitly teaches about voting and helps in Growing Voters.

There were also slight differences between white youth and youth of color. Though the total number of young people who found mail-in voting difficult was small, only 2% of young white voters said they found mail-in voting difficult, 7% of youth of color reported difficulty. Among young people who didn’t vote, 18% of youth of color (compared to 10% of white youth) cited absentee ballot or election administration problems as a reason.

Why Some Youth Didn’t Register or Vote—And What We Can Do about It

Despite high youth turnout in the 2020 election, a large share of young people were either not registered to vote or registered but did not cast a ballot. Our survey data offers some insights into the reasons and barriers that kept youth from participation in the election.

While a majority of youth did not offer a specific primary reason why they didn’t register, more than 40% of young people mentioned barriers to voting that can be addressed through improvements to voting laws and policies, outreach, and education. More than a quarter of youth who didn’t register to vote (28%) said they did not have time to register or ran out of time and missed the registration deadline. This has been a persistent problem for youth electoral participation but may have been more so in 2020, when many young people were struggling economically and personally because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Facilitative voting laws like automatic voter registration and same-day registration can help remove this impediment to voting.

In addition, 17% of young people said they did not know how to register or had problems with their voter registration form. Our research has consistently found that young people benefit from outreach by election offices, campaigns, and community organizations that doesn’t just encourage them to register, but actually walks them through the process and helps ensure that they complete it successfully. That outreach shouldn’t end once a young person is registered: as we shared above, 29% of youth who did register cited a lack of information or problems with their ballot as the reason why they did not end up voting.

It’s clear that there’s a lot of work to do to ensure that all youth have the information, access, and motivation they need to participate in democracy, so that 2020 will not be a high point in youth electoral engagement, but a stepping stone to even greater levels of youth voting from a broader, more equitable electorate.


Authors: Kelly Beadle, Alberto Medina, Kristian Lundberg, Abby Kiesa