Younger Americans embrace mail-in voting, if they can figure out how

A poll shows voters under 29 are enthusiastic about voting by mail during the pandemic, but getting information on how to do it is a challenge for some.
Image: Students laugh white waiting for the next speaker at the New Hampshire Youth Climate and Clean Energy Town Hall in Concord, New Hampshire.
People wait for the next speaker at the New Hampshire Youth Climate and Clean Energy Town Hall in Concord, N.H., on Feb. 5.Joseph Prezioso / AFP via Getty Images file

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By Amanda Golden

Engagement among young voters is higher this year than it was in the 2016 and 2018 elections, and they're enthusiastic about voting by mail in November, but access to information about registration and how to vote during the coronavirus pandemic could be an issue, a new poll shows.

The poll by the nonpartisan Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, or CIRCLE, found that 83 percent of young voters said they believe young people have the power to change the country, with 60 percent feeling they're part of a movement that will vote to express its views and 79 percent saying the pandemic has helped them realize that politics affect their lives.

But the survey also highlighted the challenges to participating in the election because it's being held during a national health crisis and young voters aren't getting clear and accurate information about online registration and mail-in voting.

A third said they didn't know whether they could register to vote online in their states. Among those who said they did know, 25 percent were incorrect. In addition, only 24 percent of those polled had voted by mail before.

"If mailing in ballots becomes the primary voting method in the 2020 elections, it will be an unfamiliar process for most youth," the survey found. "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."

Abby Kiesa, director of impact for CIRCLE, said the lack of access to voter information raises questions about how many young voters will get to act on their enthusiasm.

"The biggest flag for me is this need for guidance on, you know, basic 'small d' democratic processes like voter registration and vote by mail," Kiesa said. "We clearly have some systemic issues in reaching young people with this information. And so these numbers, in a pandemic, when there's going to be fewer methods to reaching young people, is a serious, serious concern."

The CIRCLE/Tufts College poll surveyed 2,232 eligible voters ages 18 to 29 from May 20 to June 18. It oversampled 18 to 21 year olds, Asian Americans, Blacks, Latinos and young Republicans. The margin of error was +/- 4.1 percentage points.

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The poll showed that 34.5 percent of young Asian American voters and 25 percent of whites have had experience with voting by mail, compared to 22 percent of Blacks and 20 percent of Latinos. The numbers were heavily influenced by geography — young Asian American voters are concentrated in Western states, where voting by mail is more common, while young Black voters are concentrated in the South, where an excuse is often required to vote absentee.

NAACP President Derrick Johnson said the organization has tested different approaches to increase voter turnout over the last two years and in particular how it is working to convert activism over racial justice into momentum for votes in the fall.

"That's the opportunity we are presented with," Johnson said. "When you look at the protesters, it truly does look like America. ... The opportunity here is how do we get people to march from protest to actual voting in November, and that's some of the engagement that we are doing now and working to drive initiating conversations towards the November election."

Young voters who spoke with NBC News echoed the findings.

"There's no question in my mind that the enthusiasm is there," said Andy Xie, 20, a registered Democrat from Ann Arbor, Michigan, who is voting in his first presidential election.

"What I would say is that for youth voters in particular, it's not that we don't want to vote, and it's not that we're not requesting absentee ballots, it's that the process to vote is so, so difficult," Xie said. "The main kind of obstacles to participation, aside from logistics, is just an apathy or just not really caring enough to go through all those motions."

Gennie Weiler, 20, of Minneapolis said she feels confident and is eager to vote by mail, especially after having seen successes with largely mail-in ballots in primaries like Colorado's.

"I'm kind of in the middle of the road where I'm not heavily involved in politics outwardly but I'm strong in my own convictions about it," she said, while maintaining that she's eager to vote heading into the general election, noting that her parents voted for Donald Trump in 2016.

While Trump has argued that mail-in voting would lead to fraudulent ballots and claimed without evidence that foreign countries will manufacture fake mail-in ballots to rig the election, several states already allow all-mail voting, and even more have loosened absentee voting rules because of the pandemic.

Nearly two-thirds of registered voters favor mail-in voting for the November election because of the pandemic, a recent Fox News poll found. And countering the traditional narrative of "young people don't vote," some studies on mail-in ballots have found that states with all-mail ballots, like Oregon, have seen high turnout among young voters.

And new research from PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, found that voting by mail doesn't affect either party's turnout or share of the vote.

CORRECTION: (July 5, 2020, 6:50 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the subset of young people in the CIRCLE poll who answered incorrectly when asked whether they could register to vote online in their states. A quarter of those who said they knew whether their states allowed online registration were incorrect, not a quarter of those who said they did not know.