The following is a guest post from Charlotte Blatt and Kate Hamilton, J.D. candidates at Yale Law School:
Young voters get a bad rap. In 2018, voters ages 18-29 made up just 13% of the electorate despite comprising 22% of the voting-age population – a poor turnout but an improvement upon prior elections. Yet young people are excited to participate this November. An August NextGen America/Global Strategy Group poll found that 77% of 18 to 35-year-olds from battleground states “definitely will vote” in the election, up from 70% just a month earlier. However, among other challenges sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, barriers to young voter participation have reached new heights, particularly regarding the increasing reliance on vote-by-mail.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, civic participation groups have urged widespread expansion of vote-by-mail, and many states have heeded the call. While vote-by-mail is certainly attractive from a public health perspective, it is no panacea for democracy. Indeed, civil rights groups have warned that overreliance on vote-by-mail could have the effect of “inadvertently disenfranchis[ing]” Black, disabled, elderly and Native American voters. In addition to these recognized possibilities, the unprecedented use of mail ballots also runs the risk of further disenfranchising youth voters by multiplying the impediments young people must overcome to cast a ballot, increasing their chances of casting a “lost” or uncounted ballot.
Youth voters face significant barriers to voting by mail. Recent polling found that “more than half of voters under the age of 35 say they don’t have the resources or knowledge they need to vote by mail in November,” and there is reason to believe that this resource deficit is unevenly distributed across race, educational attainment, and income. In 2016, young people without college experience were least likely to vote-by-mail, and youth of color without college experience were even less likely to vote-by-mail than their white counterparts. These historical disparities suggest that heavy reliance on mail voting this November will require addressing the hurdles facing young people, particularly young people of color.
This resource deficit is non-trivial. Registration forms, absentee ballots, and absentee ballot applications all commonly need to be printed, but, like many of the groups most likely to be disenfranchised by vote-by-mail, young people often do not have printers, and many locations that provide access to free or low-cost printing like schools and libraries have been closed since the pandemic began. As the pandemic has worn on, public printing access has gotten slightly better but the problem is not wholly resolved. Libraries and schools still have limited hours and going to these indoor spaces could present a health risk. Furthermore, a significant number of young people lack a working knowledge of the postal system, potentially hindering their ability to successfully mail in their ballots. Notably, young people have particular difficulty knowing where to buy stamps.
The pandemic has also exacerbated the complications of youth mobility. Young people already change jobs with high frequency, which often requires moving and a corresponding change in voting address. The coronavirus has heightened this trend: 34% of twenty-four to twenty-nine-year-olds stated in a recent survey that they were planning on moving in with their parents due to economic concerns surrounding the pandemic. With college closures and young people returning to their parents’ homes to quarantine, many youth may not presently reside in the location where they are registered to vote, leading to increased confusion around receiving and sending mail ballots.
While rapid expansion of state vote-by-mail programs is likely to increase uncounted ballots across the board, mail ballots cast by young people have historically been rejected at disproportionately high rates. This is often due to failure to comply with facially neutral, hyper-technical state laws, like requirements that the signature on a mail ballot exactly match the voter’s signature on file with election officials. These laws disproportionately disenfranchise young people, who are less likely to have developed “fixed” signatures. Indeed, during the 2020 primaries, first-time absentee and young voters were more likely than other groups to make mistakes that caused ballots to be rejected.
There are several steps states can take to ensure that vote-by-mail expansions do not further disenfranchise young people. While realistically, it is too close to the election for states to make significant changes to their procedures, it is not too late for states to eliminate any requirements that first-time voters must vote in person Additionally, states can and should count mail-in ballots with a presumption that voters’ signatures are valid and offer any voters with signature match issues ample opportunity to cure their ballots of defects.
Since the expansion of vote-by-mail may well outlast COVID-19, states should consider adapting their procedures for future elections as well. Those states that are not already doing so should begin proactively mailing absentee ballot applications with prepaid return postage to all registered voters. Sixteen states provide postage-paid election mail and some states, like Connecticut, are mailing absentee ballot applications to all registered voters, but these practices are not sufficiently widespread. Finally, states planning future elections should maintain opportunities to vote in person on election day and consider expanding early in-person voting, even if they have also dramatically expanded their vote-by-mail programs. For example, New York has increased access to both early in-person voting and no-excuse vote-by-mail, a promising sign after the state’s chaotic primary election. Other states should follow suit.
In addition to these state actions, civic groups, campaigns, and election officials can further invest this election cycle in educating young voters on the logistics of voting by mail, including focusing on seemingly clear topics like stamp usage. Key to spreading the word: enlisting creative messengers like TikTok influencers and celebrities that appeal to a range of young people. For example, Rapper Cardi B recorded a PSA for New York City in both English and Spanish on the importance of the Census, garnering hundreds of thousands of views. Emulating this strategy could allow civic education efforts to equip more young voters with the knowledge to successfully vote by mail.
Despite the challenges to youth voter participation, there is reason for hope. After the tragic murder of George Floyd, this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests saw activists registering and inspiring new voters, many of them young people. Seventy-nine percent of young people say that COVID-19 has made clear to them how politics impacts their lives. This November, young people emboldened by COVID-19 may be the tipping point in the election—if their ballots are counted.