Our polling data makes clear that a majority of young people are interested in the 2020 election and understand its importance. Whether they are ready to vote in an election shaped by restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic may be another story. Election processes are in flux and will likely vary from state to state. Young people’s access to, information about, and familiarity with online voter registration (OVR) and mail-in voting will be critical. In this regard, our poll reveals that there are reasons for concern that should be seen as a call to action.
We asked youth in our survey whether they could register to vote online in their state. (Online registration is widely available in 38 states and Washington, D.C.) A third of youth (32%) said they did not know. Among youth who answered yes or no, 25% were incorrect. Overall, just half (51%) of youth could correctly identify whether OVR is an option for them or not. Worryingly, among respondents from states where OVR is not available, only 14% correctly identified that was the case. This means a large segment of young people in these states may be relying on an option that isn’t available to them, thereby complicating or delaying their voter registration. Another potential stumbling block: 7.5% of young people—which translates to 3.5 million youth—say in our poll that they have not had good enough access to the Internet during the pandemic.
We have previously shared that, if mailing in ballots becomes the primary voting method in the 2020 elections, it will be an unfamiliar process for most youth. Indeed, only 24% of young people in our poll have previously voted by mail. There are major and troubling differences by race/ethnicity: 34.5% of Asian youth and 25% of White youth have had access to and experience with voting by mail, compared to 22% of Black youth and just 20% of Latino youth. However, greater availability of absentee voting in Western states (where all-mail voting is common) compared to Southern states (where excuses to vote absentee are often needed) means that access to this method of voting differs greatly, especially between Asian and Black youth because Asian American youth are concentrated in the Western States while Black youth are concentrated in the Southern States.
Approximately two-thirds of young people say they have seen information about absentee ballots this year, and the same percentage say that if their state’s voting occurs entirely by mail, they know where to get information about receiving their ballot. Of course, this means that a third of youth—more than 15 million—currently lack this critical information.
As the electoral landscape continues to evolve in many states across the country, one of the major challenges for our democracy will be ensuring that young people have access to timely information about the tools and processes that may determine whether they cast a vote in November. Our poll reveals that we are far from meeting that goal, and that it will be up to election administrators, educators, media, organizers, parents, and peers to act in concert to do so. It also highlights that these efforts must focus especially on youth of color in order to avoid perpetuating racial/ethnic inequities in political participation.