Close Menu

Youth Knowledge of Voting Laws Still Lacking

Data from our 2012 poll of young people finds that 40% don't know key information about the voting process.

On Monday, CIRCLE released a groundbreaking poll of young people’s views of the election. The survey, commissioned by the Youth Education Fund, is unique in that it polled 1,695 youth (ages 18-29) in June/July and 1,109 of the same youth between October 12 and 23. Surveying the same people twice provides powerful evidence of change over time.

State of Young American’s Voter Law Knowledge

State voting and registration laws can have an influence on youth electoral participation, as previous research indicates. Many states have changed their voting laws since 2010. Although the impact of those laws is unknown as yet, one pressing question is whether young people know what laws apply in their states. In our October national poll of young adults, we asked respondents about photo identification requirements, early voting opportunities, and voter registration deadlines.  More than forty percent answered they were “unsure”  to each question about these laws.  For instance, 41.7% said they didn’t know what the photo ID requirements were in their state. This was down slightly from the 44.2% who weren’t sure when polled in the summer. While 43.3% didn’t know what the early voting options were in their states, this was a definite change from the 51.6% who were unsure in the summer.  In the summer, 61.0% of respondents were unsure whether they needed to register 30 days or more before the election.  In this poll, only 40.4% didn’t know.   Across the board, likely voters were more than twice as likely to choose an answer to each of the voter law questions than unlikely voters.  They were also more likely to be correct.

Of those who thought they knew the answer to voter law questions, respondents were most likely to know early voting requirements in their state (84.1% correct) and least likely to know whether the registration deadline was 30 days or more from the election (22.5% correct).  A little over half (53.5%) were able to correctly identify the photo ID requirements for voting in their state. When young people chose an incorrect response in October, it was more often because they assumed that the law was stricter than it really was. For instance, likely voters are always right when they say they need a photo ID and they do, but often wrong when they say they need an ID and they don’t.  Both the June/July and October polls show that young people continue to feel confused or uninformed about key elements of the voting process.

In terms of racial and ethnic differences,  African Americans were most likely to assume that their state had various requirements, and were also likely to be incorrect on the ID law requirement largely because of the assumption that strict laws were in place.  Excluding those who were unsure, African Americans (61.2%) and Hispanic Americans (59.3%) were more likely to be incorrect about a strict photo ID law than Whites (39.8%) . On the other hand, African Americans were more likely to be correct on the other two laws than whites and Hispanic Americans.  African Americans (92.0%) were more likely to be correct than whites (82.7%) and Hispanic Americans (79.0%) on the early voting laws. African Americans were also more likely (32.4%) to know the registration deadlines in their state than Whites (19.8%) or Hispanics (22.6%).

Young people with college experience are better informed than their non-college peers.  Youth with some college were almost seven percentage points more likely to correctly identify photo ID requirements in their state (56.9% college and 48.7% non-college).  There was no statistically significant difference between the two groups regarding the likelihood of identifying correct response for registration deadlines or early voting requirements.  However, youth with college experience were more likely to think that there was a 30-day registration requirement in their state than non-college youth (51.0% vs. 42.7%), and non-college youth were more likely to be unsure about the early voting requirement in their state (47.7% vs 38.8%, respectively).

Unregistered youth were generally uninformed about voting laws.  For all three questions, more than half of the unregistered young people said they were unsure (range 53.9% to 63.8%).  On the contrary, registered voters were far more likely to choose a response (33.5% to 36.5% unsure) and when they chose a response, registered voters were more likely than non-registered voters to know the photo ID and early voting requirements in their states by ten percentage points (55.1% for registered voters and 45.4% for unregistered voters).  Registered voters were actually less likely to be correct (82.2%) than unregistered voters (92.3%) on the early voting requirements.  There was no difference in their knowledge of 30-day registration rules.

Do You Have Photo ID?

Given the public debate and possible confusion over photo identification requirements, we were interested to know how many 18-29 year-olds possessed current photo IDs that were of the types commonly valid for voting in-person. We had not asked this question as part of our June / July poll.

Only a small percentage (1.4%) indicated that they had no photo ID of any sort. However, of this group, non-college-experienced youth were five times more likely than college-experienced youth to lack valid photo ID. Hispanics were over four times more likely than whites and over six times more likely than African Americans to be without a photo ID. So while the percentage of individuals without photo ID is small, it disproportionately affects some groups more than others.

The most common form of photo ID listed was a current state-issued driver’s license (80.7%).  A distant second was a current U.S. passport (39.9%), followed by a current photo ID issued by a college or university in the state the student will vote in (28.8%). Of those who said they had photo ID, 91.3% indicated that it had an expiration date on it, 3.5% indicated no expiration date, and 5.2% were unsure.