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Voting Laws and Other Access Issues Shaped the Youth Vote in 2022

Data from our post-election survey suggests that youth in states with facilitative electoral laws may have faced fewer barriers to vote.

Lead Author: Peter de Guzman
Contributors: Alberto Medina, Kelly Siegel-Stechler


Equal and easy access to the ballot remains a major issue for American democracy. Barriers to electoral participation affect all potential voters but can especially hinder youth, who are newer to the process, may be registering or casting a ballot for the first time, and are more likely to move—including to a new state where they need to reregister and potentially contend with different election policies.

In recent years changes in election laws have also presented both opportunities and challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic precipitated an expansion of vote by mail in some states; other states imposed new restrictions on voting and still others have passed both some facilitative election laws and some new limitations, creating an uneven and frequently changing landscape for youth to navigate. In 2023, states continue to enact laws that may affect young potential voters: Idaho recently passed a law that bans student IDs as a form of valid voter identification, which is now being challenged in court.

Using data on CIRCLE’s 2022 post-election survey, we explored the impact of voting policies on young people’s electoral participation in the midterm elections as well as other barriers to registration and voting reported by youth. We find:

  • After several states eliminated or restricted their use, half as many youth used ballot drop boxes in 2022 than in 2020
  • Among youth who weren’t registered to vote in 2022, Latino and rural youth were more likely to say they didn’t know how to register
  • In states with election policies like automatic, same-day, and online voter registration, youth were much less likely to say they ran out of time to register

Youth Less Likely to Use Ballot Drop Off Boxes in 2022

Due to the health and safety concerns of the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 elections saw a majority of young voters casting their ballots before/outside of Election Day. Fifty-five percent of youth who cast a ballot did so by voting early in-person, voting by mail or by absentee ballot drop-off, including 39% who used some form of absentee voting. 

According to our survey, among youth in 2022, 55% voted early or absentee. More youth voted by mailing in their ballot: 32% in 2022, compared to 27% in 2020). On the other hand, the percentage of youth dropping off their ballot at a box or location more than halved: from 13% in 2020 to 6% in 2022.

The change is notable because, before the 2022 midterm elections, at least six states (WI, GA, IA, MO, TX, and FL) created new time and location restrictions on the return of mail ballots, with Wisconsin’s state Supreme Court declaring drop boxes illegal. While it’s likely that some voters who would have preferred to drop off their ballots mailed them instead, it’s possible that some youth who were counting on the ease and convenience of drop boxes may have not voted in the election.

Our research has previously found that youth are more likely to decide who to vote for later than other age groups in the electorate. In 2016, nearly half (49%) of young voters returned their absentee ballot or cast an early vote in the last six days before Election Day. The restrictions or elimination of an easy “last-minute” option like ballot dropoff boxes could have hindered some young people’s participation

Youth Who Didn’t Vote Cite Lack of Time and Information

While some still assume youth are apathetic about politics, only a third of young people who didn’t cast a ballot in 2022 said it was because it did not matter to them. Meanwhile, 38% said they forgot or were too busy, 21% said they didn’t have enough information about the candidates or the voting process, and 9% had problems with in-person voting or with their absentee ballot.

Similarly, among youth who weren’t registered to vote, 24% said they didn’t have time or missed the registration deadline, and 13% said they didn’t know how to register or had trouble with the application—meaning, nearly 2 in 5 (37%) of youth faced time or information barriers to registration.

There were some differences by race/ethnicity that point to ongoing challenges in equitable access to elections. Half of young Latinos who weren’t registered to vote cited time and information barriers, compared to 35% of white youth and 23% of Black youth. The difference was especially acute when it came to not knowing how to register: about twice as many unregistered young Latinos (16%) cited that as their reason, compared to 6% of white youth and 7% of Black youth, respectively.

There were also differences by urbanicity. Our research has long pointed to the lack of civic information and opportunities for youth in rural areas, many of whom live in what we have termed “civic deserts.” Among those unregistered in 2022, 19% of young people in rural areas said they did not know how to register to vote, compared to just 7% of youth in urban areas. Compared to rural and suburban youth, young people in urban areas were 9 percentage points more likely to say they heard either “some” or “a lot” during the election cycle about how, when, and where to register and vote.

Electoral Policies Can Mitigate Impact of Barriers to Vote

While some election laws, like restrictions on mail and early voting, can serve as barriers to youth electoral participation, others can facilitate that engagement by making it easier for youth to register and vote. Before the 2022 midterms we highlighted the uneven landscape and recent changes in election policies across the country; our post-election survey offers some evidence for how these laws may have affected youth voting.

In general, unregistered youth in states with facilitative laws (like automatic, same-day, and online voter registration) who still failed to register were less likely than youth in states without these laws to cite time and information barriers as the reasons they did not register to vote. In particular, young people in states without automatic voter registration (AVR), online voter registration (OVR), and same-day registration (SDR) were much more likely to say they didn’t register because they missed the deadline.

Youth in states without AVR and OVR were also more likely to say that they weren’t registered because they didn’t know how.

Policies and Outreach Key to Growing Voters

Our research underscores that, far more than apathy or lack of interest in electoral participation, barriers related to time, information, and other access issues continue to prevent many young people from voting. Communities and institutions should redouble their efforts to address these issues, especially as they affect youth of color, rural youth, and other historically marginalized and underserved young that remain underrepresented in the electorate.

Ensuring that all young people benefit from outreach and information about the election—not just about candidates and issues, but about the logistics of registering and casting a ballot—remains a crucial task, especially as election policies continue to shift and change aspects of the process across the country. And it’s clear that facilitative policies that make it easier to register, as opposed to restrictive ones that eliminate ballot drop boxes, or  are key in order to grow voters for the 2024 cycle and future elections.

CIRCLE Growing Voters

Released in 2022, the CIRCLE Growing Voters report introduces a new framework to transform how communities and institutions prepare youth for democracy. It includes major recommendations for organizations across sectors to do this work more equitably and effectively.

About the Survey: The survey was developed by CIRCLE at Tufts University, and the polling firm Ipsos collected the data from their nationally representative panel of respondents and a sample of people recruited for this survey between November 9 and November 30, 2022. The study involved an online surveyed a total of 2,018 self-reported U.S. citizens ages 18 to 29 in the United States. Unless mentioned otherwise, data are for all 18- to 29-year-olds in our sample. The margin of error for the entire sample is +/- 2.2 percentage points; subsamples may have higher margins of error.


More from the CIRCLE 2022 Post-Election Survey