Since Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, Democratic political fortunes have been strongly tied to youth turnout.
According to the analysts at Catalist, the political data firm, in each of the last three presidential elections, among those under 30 years of age who voted for one of the two major party nominees, Democrats captured 62 percent of the vote. But Democrats didn’t win all of those presidential elections. According to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), turnout among those voters dropped from 45 percent in 2012, when Barack Obama won, to 39 percent in 2016, when Donald Trump won. Four years later, the under-30 turnout shot up to 50 percent, with the youth vote electing America’s oldest president, Joe Biden.
Democratic House and Senate candidates also performed better in the 2018 and 2022 midterms, when youth turnout was 28 percent and 23 percent, respectively than in the 2014 midterm, when youth turnout sank to 13 percent.
The variations in turnout level are a stark reminder that our youngest citizens don’t vote as reliably as our oldest. In turn, youth-dependent Democrats are prone to panic attacks before an election, wondering whether the kids will bother showing up.
A new analysis of the 2020 election points to a simple way to ensure robust youth turnout in every election and soothe those predictable, understandable Democratic anxieties: Vote-at-Home.
Phil Keisling, Chair of the National Vote at Home Institute and a former Oregon secretary of state, reviewed voter data collected by the Voter Participation Center and Catalist assessed state-level turnout rate for voters under 35 in conjunction with each state’s voting system.
Only eight of the 50 states in the 2020 election used a vote-at-home system, in which every registered voter automatically receives a paper ballot in the mail and can return a completed ballot either in the mail or at a drop-off site. Yet vote-at-home states compromised more than half of the states with the highest turnout among 18-to-34-year-olds.
In his report, the former Oregon secretary of state and Washington Monthly contributing editor examined turnout rates for both registered voters and eligible voters (the latter category includes unregistered people who were eligible to register). Among registered voters, five of the top nine states for young voter turnout were vote-at-home states: Montana, Colorado, Washington, Vermont, and California. Another three vote-at-home jurisdictions—New Jersey, Oregon, and the District of Columbia—made the top 15.
When ranking state turnout rates among the larger pool of eligible voters, six of the top 10 states for youth turnout were vote-at-home states: New Jersey, Colorado, Washington, Nevada, Oregon, and California.
As most of these states were not presidential battleground states in 2020, vote-at-home can’t be credited with carrying Biden to victory. But these are home to many of next year’s hotly contested House races and Senate clashes. In the Cook Political Report with Amy Walter ratings for 2024, eight House races in the vote-at-home states are classified as “Toss Ups,” and two Senate races (in Montana and Nevada) have been deemed competitive, with an initial “Lean Democrat” label.
Would an expansion of vote-at-home to more states tip elections to the Democrats? Not necessarily. As Keisling, who as secretary of state was one of the pioneers of vote-at-home, notes, academic research into vote-at-home systems has found “no significant partisan impact.” After all, young people are not the only people capable of using old-fashioned mail.
Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans, however, have bought into so many unfounded conspiracies about mail voting that in recent elections, Democrats have trounced Republicans in mail balloting. For example, last month in the Washington Monthly, Sarah McGrath reported on a Virginia statehouse special election that Democrats flipped thanks to a massive margin in mail ballots.
If rationality were driving political decision-making, expanding vote-at-home would attract bipartisan support, and in the past, vote-at-home began largely in the Republican West. But today’s MAGA Republicans are reflexively irrational, so there’s almost no chance that vote-at-home policies will be adopted in the vast majority of states. Of the 42 states that don’t have vote-at-home systems, Republicans fully control 21, and nine have divided governments.
That leaves 12 states under Democratic control. And six of these—Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, and New York—have House races that Cook deems “Toss Up” or lean toward one party. Michigan, of course, is also a presidential battleground and may have a closely contested Senate race next year.
Democratic governors and legislators in these states may want to consider fast-tracking vote-at-home reforms. It’s not only the right thing to do to maximize voter turnout and strengthen democracy, but it also might give Democrats a boost in 2024—so long as Republican rank-and-file voters don’t rekindle their relationship with reality and restore their faith in the United States Postal Service.