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Black Youth Have Less Experience With and Information About Voting by Mail

Less than 10% of young Black voters cast ballots by mail in 2016, and Black youth in our survey were more likely to say they had not seen information on mail-in voting.

Preparing for this November’s elections has looked different than in the past. Yes, as always, voters must be registered, educated, and encouraged to participate; campaign messages must be shared; equipment and procedures must be readied for processing ballots. But the interconnected triple traumas of COVID-19, the economic effects of responding to the virus, and the systemic racism laid bare by the pandemic and by protests in response to anti-Black violence nationwide have necessitated both the expansion of vote by mail (VBM) and changes in VBM implementation to reduce potential racial disparities in access to this critical democratic tool. In particular, we must consider the perspectives and past electoral participation of Black youth to continue dismantling physical, social, and structural barriers to voting and to political power.

To that end, CIRCLE has examined data from our nationwide survey of young Americans conducted this summer, and from the 2016 Survey of the Performance of American Elections.[1] Our findings paint a picture of Black youth’s use of VBM in previous elections and highlights insights and recommendations for increasing their utilization of VBM in 2020 and in elections to come.

Our analysis reveals that:

  • In 2016, young people (ages 18-29) used VBM at lower rates (19%) than older voters (22%)
  • While there weren’t significant differences in rates of VBM use between White youth and youth of color, when we break that down further we find that only 8% of Black youth voted by mail in 2016
  • These trends in usage are mirrored by trends in knowledge about VBM and absentee ballot procedures: Black youth are less likely than youth in general to have seen information about VBM or to know where to go to access that information
  • Restrictions on voting by mail are more common in states with a higher proportion of Black youth; meanwhile, in every state with all-mail elections, Black (non-Hispanic) youth make up less than 5% of the total youth population (ages 17-28)
  • The lack of VBM experience/adoption is a potential missed opportunity to electorally engage a segment of young people that is interested in achieving social change. Young Black women, especially, were key participants in and drivers of social movements which fueled youth voter turnout in the 2018 midterm elections

Black Youth Need Education and Support to Use VBM

Nearly three-quarters of young Black voters in the 2016 election (74%) voted in-person on Election Day. The majority of the remainder voted in-person, but as a part of early voting. Only 8% of Black youth voted by mail, in stark comparison to the 20% of White youth who did the same.

Coming into the 2020 election, Black youth will have less experience with voting by mail to draw from than their peers. At the same time, they are being  afflicted and affected by COVID-19 at disproportionately high rates, which heightens the importance for Black youth to vote by mail as a matter of public health while potentially reducing their time and ability to learn a new voting process as they deal with the economic and social crises caused by the pandemic.

A recent CIRCLE survey of young people (ages 18-29) underscores the need to increase access to education about voting by mail for Black youth. At least two in five young Black people have never seen information about how to vote by mail or absentee, and the same percentage said they would not know where to get that information if their state’s election were to shift to all-mail in November.

In addition, Black youth who have managed to vote by mail have found it a more cumbersome process. For example, they reported that it took longer than for youth of other races/ethnicities who employed the practice. They were also less likely to have someone else return their ballot on their behalf and more likely to use the postal service to directly send in their ballots rather than leveraging an array of other options (such as drop boxes used only for ballots, election offices, and designated voting centers) available to VBM voters. These experiences suggest that there is an important role for election officials, parents, teachers, mentors or friends to ensure Black youth have information about VBM and, if needed, support in efficiently navigating the VBM process.  It is especially important for election officials designing communications efforts about VBM systems—as well as get-out-the-vote organizers encouraging its use—to target outreach to Black youth and the social networks that support them.

The Inverse Geography of Black Youth and of VBM Access

As we consider factors influencing young people’s past use of VBM, we must look beyond access to information and education on how to employ the practice, and also assess differences in structural access to VBM or absentee voting. States (data below includes Washington, D.C.) can be grouped into three categories in terms of ease of access to voting by mail, ranked from those with most to least restrictive policies:

  • States requiring an excuse (i.e., being out of town, illness, disability) to vote by mail[2]—nearly a third of states (16) fall into this category; half of these states consider being 65 or older a valid excuse for an absentee or mail-in ballot
  • States where you do not need an excuse to vote by mail or request an absentee ballot - the majority of states (30) have no restrictions on VBM access
  • States that run all-mail elections - 5 states (CO, HI, OR, UT, WA) automatically send a ballot in the mail to every registered voter

Cross-referencing states’ ease of access to VBM with Census demographics reveals that Black youth are disproportionately clustered in states which restrict access to voting by mail.

Nearly 2 in 5 Black Non-Hispanic youth (39%) live in a state which requires an excuse to vote by mail. Almost all of the rest (60%) live in states which don’t require an excuse; only 1% live in states which conduct all-mail elections. In comparison, one-third of youth overall (33%) live in states which restrict VBM use, 60% live in states with no VBM restrictions, and 7% live in states with all-mail elections. Black youth are less likely than other youth to live in states whose election policies implicitly encourage use of VBM at the same time as they are more likely to live in states which place limitations on the practice. Black youth are unique, even among youth of color, in the extent to which states where they live either fail to universally facilitate VBM or actively restrict its use.

There is not one sole factor which encourages or diminishes young Black voters’ use of VBM, but as we look to improve participation broadly, we must consider not only how information about VBM systems is communicated but also where accessible VBM processes exist or do not.

This is not just an issue of access and equity: it can decide elections. CIRCLE’s Youth Electoral Significance Index highlights races where young people stand to play a decisive role in determining the outcome of elections. Four of the top 10 states, in our ranking of where youth may shape the presidential race (FL, MI, NC, PA) and Senate races (AL, GA, MI, NC), have restrictive VBM policies and Black youth comprise over 15% of their state’s youth populations.

Black Youth Aware of Structural Barriers, Still Politically Engaged

Black youth are experts in assessing and making sense of their lived experience with democracy in the United States. They recognize that systemic barriers can impede their efforts to drive change in their communities. For example, compared to their peers of other races/ethnicities, fewer young Black people say they believe in young people’s political power and in the likelihood that the outcomes of the 2020 election will have a significant impact on their communities. CIRCLE’s 2018 pre-election poll found that 42% of young Black women believed that who they vote for does not matter, in comparison to the 27% of young White women who said the same.

That said, we cannot mistake the pragmatism of Black youth for apathy, and we cannot undervalue the energy and leadership of Black women, in particular. Among all youth, Black women were the most engaged in social movements leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, and according to our 2020 youth survey, Black and Latino women were the most likely to try to convince other young people to vote. Black young people are persistent in actively leveraging the tools of the political process, even as those tools have long been wielded to impede their participation.

The racial disparities we are witnessing in each of the aforementioned traumas afflicting our democracy today are direct symptoms of the historic marginalization of Black communities and other communities of color from political participation, the reverberations of which can be felt at all levels of government and political decision-making. While increasing VBM access, and making it more equitable, can seem like a too-small bureaucratic improvement in the face of such large-scale injustice, it is a potentially impactful intervention that should be part of broader efforts to support equitable access for young Black people in the United States.


[1] About the Analysis: This analysis utilizes data on 18- to 29-year-old voters from the Survey of the Performance of American Elections (SPAE), a survey of registered voters managed by the MIT Election Data and Science Lab conducted the morning after each federal election. This was cross-checked with data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS) to confirm that results were aligned, but references are to SPAE data, for consistency in comparisons, unless otherwise noted. Information on state-level policies for voting by mail is drawn from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The analysis also shares findings from a recent CIRCLE/Tisch College 2020 Youth Survey, the first wave of which was fielded from May 20 to June 18, 2020. The survey covered adults between the ages of 18 and 29 who will be eligible to vote in the United Stated by the 2020 General Election. The 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 based panel. A total of 2,232 eligible adults completed the survey, which includes oversamples of 18- to 21-year-olds (N=671), Asian American youth (N=306), Black youth (N=473), Latino youth (N=559) and young Republicans (N=373). Of the total completed surveys, 1,019 were from the Gallup Panel and 1,238 were from the Dynata Panel. Unless stated otherwise, ‘youth’ refers to those aged 18-to 29 years old. The margin of error for the poll, taking into account the design effect associated with the Gallup Panel is +/- 4.1 percentage points. Margins of error for racial and ethnic subgroups range from +/-8.1 to 11.0 percentage points.

[2] Some states are instituting temporary measures that include COVID-19 as a valid excuse for voting by mail for immediate upcoming elections. These recent, likely temporary changes are not included in this analysis.

Authors: Sarah Andes, Abby Kiesa, Kristian Lundberg, Alberto Medina