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Young People and Vote By Mail: Lessons for 2020

Our analysis of which youth voted by mail in 2012 and 2016, how they did it, and why, can offer insights to those looking to expand the practice in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 1 in 5 voters in the 2016 presidential election cast their ballots by mail. In five states—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington—voting by mail is already the default method of electoral participation. Other states employ mail-in ballots for absentee voting, in small elections, or under other specified circumstances. Now, because of concerns about in-person voting due to the COVID-19 pandemic, states across the country are considering expanding the practice. As more jurisdictions look to launch or scale up existing vote by mail (VBM) processes, election officials and campaigns should learn from how VBM has been implemented in the past in order to improve current systems, and to ensure that new VBM programs prioritize equitable access to election information and infrastructure for all voters. This is especially important for young people and populations historically affected by restrictive voting laws or practices.

Widespread use of VBM would be new for most states and most voters, whose familiarity with VBM varies widely across the country. Among all ages, in 2016, votes cast by mail ranged from 2-3% of all ballots (in Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, and Mississippi) to over 60% (in Arizona and Montana as well as aforementioned VBM states like Colorado, Oregon, Utah, and Washington). According to our analysis of Census data from states with a sufficient youth sample size, young people were no more likely than older adults to use vote by mail, which highlights the need to ensure that the newest potential voters will be as prepared as possible to participate in 2020. 

CIRCLE has undertaken an analysis, shared here, of how vote by mail (including for absentee ballots) was utilized by young people in the 2012 and 2016 elections. Our analysis focuses on understanding who comprised the roughly 4 million young people who voted by mail in 2016 and how it worked for them, in order to ground future efforts in lessons from these experiences. 

Our findings reveal:

  • Among young people who voted by mail in 2016, a plurality (29%) cited convenience as the top reason why they used VBM.
  • More than a third (34%) of youth who voted by mail in 2016 did so because of election systems employed by their jurisdiction: 15% lived in a place where voting by mail was the only option, and 19% had signed up to get their ballot delivered automatically.
  • Differences in modes of voting (by mail versus in person) were most pronounced between youth with and without college experience (ages 21-29)—the latter voted in person on Election Day at the highest rate of all youth subgroups studied.
  • While youth of color and White youth employed VBM at similar rates in 2012 and 2016, there are substantial differences in how they returned their ballots which are important to consider in planning operations and outreach for future elections.

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. It is important to recognize that this summary describes only the reflections of registered voters. Therefore, there are many young people whose awareness and impressions of VBM are not described here but whose electoral experiences should also be considered in future VBM system design.

Who Voted By Mail and Why

As state and local leaders direct their attention to expanding the use of VBM, it is critically important to understand young peoples’ past experiences with this voting method. There are already large differences among youth in access to civic institutions and infrastructure that support their political engagement. Now is the time to understand young people’s needs related to VBM so that we do not reproduce these disparities. 

In 2016, voting in person on Election Day remained the preferred method of casting a ballot for the majority (57%) of the American electorate, and even more so for young voters (63%). Still, nearly one-fifth (19%) of 18- to 29-year-olds who participated in that election voted by mail. 

Young people most commonly cited “convenience” as their top consideration in electing to vote by mail. Other top factors included the ease of receiving a ballot automatically, the need to vote absentee because of travel, and the challenge of getting to the polls because of work or school schedules. (In addition, for youth in some jurisdictions, voting by mail was the only option.) Systems that support voting by mail easily proved to be an important nudge: nearly one-fifth (19%) of young people who voted by mail did so because they signed up to be sent a ballot automatically, the second most popular reason for using VBM cited by both youth of color and White youth. It is worth noting that lack of access to the polls due to school and work schedules was referenced as a motivating factor much more commonly by youth of color (for whom it ranked as the third-most common reason for voting by mail) than by White youth.[1]

In 2016, young people with no college experience (who make up over one-third of 18- to 29-year-olds) were the least likely to vote by mail and most likely to vote in person on Election Day. Youth of color without college experience were even less likely to vote by mail than their White non-college peers. To advance more equitable outcomes, new efforts to expand VBM must ensure that outreach to young people takes place beyond the college campus.

Past efforts at VBM expansion saw the rate of voting by mail increase among all voters between 2012 and 2016, but less so among young people than among older voters. As election officials work to further encourage adoption of the practice, they should take note of this and make efforts to ensure that VBM among young people is encouraged and facilitated as much as or more than among older voters. 

The Youth Experience of Voting by Mail

The VBM process typically involves registered voters requesting a ballot (unless one will be mailed to them automatically), being mailed a ballot, marking their ballot, securing their ballot in a designated mailing envelope, confirming its authenticity,[2]  and returning the ballot via the postal service or by dropping it off at designated locations. Nearly all youth who voted by mail in 2016 (94%) found this process “somewhat” or “very easy” to navigate, and 80% reported that ballot drop-off locations were conveniently located in relation to their work, school, or home.

That said, these early VBM adopters may be a self-selecting group of young people who are particularly primed to engage in figuring out the logistics. Additionally, there are some nuances in the process that may affect diverse groups of youth in different ways, and that should be considered in order to address—instead of exacerbate—disparities. While the vast majority (67%) of youth who voted by mail in 2016 returned their ballots via the postal service, there are other variations in the VBM experience of White youth and youth of color. 

For example, among young people who voted by mail in 2016, nearly one-fifth (18%) of White youth had someone else return their ballot for them, a number significantly higher than the percentage of young voters of color who reported the same. This might explain the double-digit difference between the percentage of White youth who found the ballot return process “very easy” compared to youth of color. There was a similarly large gap between the percentage of White youth and youth of color who said it took either “no time at all” or less than 10 minutes to return their ballots.

This disparity speaks to the need to better leverage the support of adults to assist young voters of color in navigating the VBM process efficiently, and to ensure that outreach targets young voters of color directly so that they have access to clear information about voting by mail procedures. It's also worth considering that, if limited in-person contact is still recommended in November due to the coronavirus, fewer youth will be able to rely on in-person help with the ballot return process. This will make it even more important to provide all youth with guidance on how to complete the VBM process by themselves.

These efforts should also take into account that there was a shift between 2012 and 2016 in how young peoples’ VBM ballots were returned, with an increase from 17% to 28% in the percentage of ballots dropped off at official election locations (as opposed to returned by mail). Notably, there is a significant difference by race/ethnicity in use of alternatives to the postal service. In 2016, youth of color returned their ballots at a postal box or had them picked up by a postal worker at their residence at a much higher rate than White youth. Young White voters utilized some election-specific resources, like drop boxes used only for ballots, election offices, and designated voting centers, more frequently than their peers of color—though neighborhood polling places were used as drop-off locations equally among both populations. Furthermore, young White voters were more likely to return their ballots early (over a week before Election Day) than young voters of color. These trends suggest that there may be differences in young peoples’ access to information about the breadth of alternatives for completing the VBM process. 

Maximizing the Potential of Vote by Mail

The SPAE survey data aligns with conclusions from our 2018 “Expanding the Electorate” report co-authored by CIRCLE and Opportunity Youth United (OYU), which suggests that young people’s utilization of VBM is not a question of access to ballot drop-off locations, but of access to information. The report, based on a survey of 18- to 34-year-olds primarily from low-income backgrounds, underscores that many youth are unaware that they can find important voting information from official sources like a state’s elections website. Most relevant to VBM, just about one in five respondents (21%) were confident they could learn how to get an absentee ballot, and some young people feared that they would not know how to fill out a ballot and would have no one to help them figure it out. 

If these challenges are addressed, VBM can be a productive way to increase youth electoral engagement in 2020 and beyond. A previous CIRCLE analysis of what prevented young people from participating in the 2016 election revealed that the second most commonly cited barrier was being too busy or having a conflict on Election Day. Moreover, for youth without college experience, the third most common reason was a lack of transportation. Expanding the use of VBM offers the opportunity to overcome both of these common logistical barriers to youth participation.

Fulfilling the potential of VBM without perpetuating existing inequities will depend on providing concrete information to youth. Communication must explain who is eligible to vote by mail, how to get a ballot, how to fill it out, and how to return it. Advocates, campaigns, and election administrators cannot assume that technology is a silver bullet. In CIRCLE and OYU’s 2018 survey, we found that only 10% of young people surveyed used online voter registration and just 5% utilized text reminders to vote. While young people are savvy in using technology, they want to be able to ask questions and receive guidance to make sure, for example, that they are filling out forms correctly. Many youth surveyed preferred to register to vote in person at nonprofit organizations or community events where they could receive such support. This preference likely extends to procedures for filling out ballots as well. Schools offer another ideal setting for youth to get information and guidance from trusted adults. Again, if these interactions and opportunities are more limited in the coming months due to the pandemic, all stakeholders will have to adapt in order to properly reach and support youth.

This moment of national turmoil has created an opportunity to rethink election administration, and voting by mail will be a key element of those changes. Our research shows that it’s not enough to merely replicate or scale existing practices. In planning and implementation, election administrators must operate with an eye toward eliminating inequities in its usage and: 

  • Favor systems in which registered voters receive mail-in ballots automatically and can return them easily
  • Tailor communications/outreach content and methods to young audiences
  • Promote equitable use of VBM by proactively reaching out to young people beyond college campuses
  • Engage local community organizations and others in direct contact with youth to offer direct support to young people in requesting, completing, and returning their ballots
  • Ensure that communication about new procedures clearly outlines the range of ways voters can submit mail-in ballots, so that youth can choose what’s most convenient 

Expanding the use of VBM presents an opportunity to correct long-standing inequities in electoral participation, if we commit to prioritizing diverse youth engagement within our strategies. Critical reflection and planning can impact the role of young people in 2020 and, building on the VBM infrastructure created today, in elections for years to come.


[1] While we include analysis of use of vote by mail among youth by race and ethnicity, the sample sizes of youth who used vote by mail were relatively small when disaggregated. Therefore, we are choosing to highlight only the larger differences.

[2] States employ a range of methods to verify the validity of mailed-in ballots. In many cases, a voter simply signs an affidavit on the ballot envelope, which is later matched with their signature in voter registration files. In some states, ballots must be signed by a witness or notary, or a voter must include photocopies of a driver’s license or other identification documents. For more information, consult your state election board or this overview from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Authors: Sarah Andes, Abby Kiesa, Peter de Guzman