As states expand options to vote by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic so citizens don’t have to risk their lives or spread the disease to cast ballots, one of the questions that has arisen is whether young people will be disenfranchised. The concern is that millennials and younger cohorts, bopping back and forth between college and their parents’ homes, might not receive the notices states are mailing out for them to request absentee ballots—or, even if they do, whether their lack of familiarity with the conventions of old-fashioned mail will be a hindrance to their participation in elections.
If Florida is any indication, those fears are probably unfounded. Election data I obtained from the Sunshine State on how many young people voted by mail in the March 17 primary, which has never before been reported, is encouraging. Compared to the 2016 primary, the number of 18-24-year-olds in Florida who voted by mail in 2020 grew by 338 percent. That compares to an 11 percent increase in vote by mail for all age groups during that period.
To be sure, the growth was from a relatively small base: 29,251 in 2020, 6,659 in 2016. That compares to 1,395,524 vote by mail ballots cast overall in the state in 2020, up from 1,258,732 in 2016.
Still, the rate of increase in young people voting by mail is impressive. And the numbers would have almost certainly been greater had the state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, done what other governors did this spring and postponed the primary to a later date. “They voted during the Civil War,” he said in announcing his decision the Friday before the primary. That left too little time for citizens who wanted to cast ballots but weren’t willing to risk their lives in a polling place to sign up to receive a vote-by-mail ballot—even though Florida makes the process relatively easy by offering no-excuse absentee voting
One person who was cheated out of her chance to make her voice heard is Chelsea Engle. The 23-year-old Tampa-area student was excited to vote in the Democratic primary, and was even mobilizing her friends to do likewise. But when Election Day came, she decided not to risk going to a polling place because, as a teenager, she had been diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer that has left her immunocompromised. Had she known more about the option to vote by mail, she told me, and had the election been delayed to give her more time to request a mail ballot, she would have done so.
Far more Democrats than Republicans in Florida voted on March 17, both in-person and by mail, but that can largely be explained by the fact that the Democrats had a very competitive presidential primary contest and Republicans did not. Most studies of vote by mail show that it doesn’t advantage one party more than another. Indeed, both the Republican and Democratic parties have long been encouraging their voters to sign up for absentee ballots.
Nevertheless, soon after the March 17 Florida primary, Donald Trump began attacking vote by mail as “corrupt”—despite the fact that he himself voted by mail in that very primary—and complaining that proposals by congressional Democrats to fund state efforts to expand vote at home options could be devastating to the GOP in November. Since then, Republicans have mounted an all-out political and legal effort to fight expansions of vote by mail.
Evidence that the Republicans might have reason to worry comes from a New York Times analysis of last month’s elections in Wisconsin, which found that Democrats voting by mail made the difference in a bitterly-fought state supreme court race. The Times didn’t report voting by age group, but I found quite lopsided turnout results for young people in Florida. The number of 18-24-year-olds who voted by mail in the state’s Democratic primary rose by 505 percent, while the increase was only 178 percent among Republicans in that age group. But, again, that could be explained by the lack of a competitive Republican presidential primary.
In the end, the fact that young people from both parties voted by mail in greater numbers in Florida this spring should be heartening—and not necessarily surprising. Multiple studies have shown that vote at home’s effects are most pronounced among young, low-propensity voters. For instance, a 2016 Pantheon Analytics study, commissioned by the Washington Monthly, found that younger voters in Colorado’s 2014 vote-at-home election turned out at a rate 12 percentage points higher than was expected under a generally accurate forecast model.
It makes logical sense. Amber McReynolds, who heads the National Vote at Home Institute, told me that vote at home appeals to young voters because it’s much easier than getting to a polling place on Election Day. “If they have more time and get their ballot automatically at home, it makes it easier and more convenient for them to engage and vote,” she said.
Chelsea Engle’s story illustrates that many young voters will choose to vote by mail in the coming elections—including the general election in November—if given the opportunity and made aware of the option. (As with any electoral reform, effective messaging about the system change is critical.) Then, if history is any indicator, they are likely to keeping voting from home in the elections to follow.
Election officials across the country who have implemented vote at home have often found that voters get hooked with the system once they try it out. “Any voter in any one of these primary states is wondering what their options are,” said Phil Keisling, the former Oregon secretary of state who pioneered all-mail voting in that state and co-founded the National Vote at Home Institute. “And then, very quickly, they are discovering that not only do they have an option, but it’s an option that a lot of them are never going to stop using.”
That would be welcome news. Young voters have the lowest turnout of any age group in the United States. In the 2016 general election, only 46 percent of young voters cast ballots. The problem is even worse in midterms. In 2014, for example, less than 20 percent of young people voted. The 2018 election was better, with 31 percent turnout among young voters, but that’s still far too low.
But as Florida’s most recent election shows, increased access to vote at home can start to reverse that trend. Other electoral reforms, like automatic voter registration and same-day registration are important, but vote by mail has by far the best track record of increasing turnout and turning non-voters into voters.
As vote at home is expanded more and more nationwide, a demographic of voters that too often experiences politics as a spectator sport can start to revitalize American democracy.