skip to main content
Lack of Voting Information Could Hamper Youth Turnout

Lack of Voting Information Could Hamper Youth Turnout

by Abby Kiesa
Abby Kiesa is the Director of Impact for the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).

Story Highlights

  • 79% of youth say COVID-19 helped them realize politics impacts their lives
  • Healthcare, climate change, racism top election issues
  • One-third of youth unsure if they can register to vote online

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Young adults in the U.S. are interested and engaged in the 2020 election at high levels, while at the same time, one-third of youth are unsure whether their state has online voter registration, and 25% have voted by mail before. This information deficit about voting raises questions on whether young people will have access to the information necessary to vote this November in an election that will be inevitably shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic.

These results are from a web survey, using probability and non-probability samples, of more than 2,000 adults ages 18-29 conducted with Gallup by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), part of Tufts University's Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. The survey, taken as protests about the treatment of Black Americans and rising COVID-19 infections dominated the news, highlights young people's commitment to political and social change as well as the profound challenges to ensuring they can vote in 2020.

An Emerging Generation Ready to Lead Change

Four out of five (79%) young people say that the coronavirus pandemic has helped them realize how much political leaders' decisions impact their lives. Three in five youth say they are part of a movement that will vote to express its views.

These attitudes have helped promote political engagement and activism among young adults. Seventy percent of U.S. adults under age 30 say they have talked with friends about politics, and 51% say they have tried to convince other young people to vote. Nearly three in ten report attending a protest or demonstration (29%) or donating money to a political campaign (29%). Twenty-four percent have helped others register to vote, and 16% say they have volunteered for a political campaign.

Youth Activism and Political Engagement, 2020
Figures are the percentage of young people, ages 18-29, who have taken each of the following actions
% Have done
Talk to friends about political issues or elections 70
Help someone (e.g., neighbor, younger student, stranger) who was in need of help 65
Try to convince other young people to vote 51
Advocate for a local, state or national policy 33
Donate money to a campaign 29
Attend a march or demonstration about an issue that I care about 28
Register others to vote 24
Serve in a leadership role at a community organization 19
Volunteer for a political campaign 16
Tufts University Tisch College-CIRCLE
CIRCLE/Tisch College 2020 Pre-Election Youth Poll

CIRCLE asked the same questions in their 2016 and 2018 surveys of youth ages 18-24, which were both conducted by GfK. The current data suggest that young adults are more likely to engage in these activities this year than they were in either 2016 or 2018.

Top Voting Issues for Youth

The top issues for young adults in this election are healthcare, the environment and racism. Thirty-two percent of young adults identify access and affordability of healthcare as one of the three most important election issues to them, and 31% say the same about the environment and climate change. Nearly as many, 29%, say racism is one of their top three issues, and an additional 21% say police treatment of people of color is in their top three.

About one-third of young adults mention the coronavirus -- either getting back to normal (25%) or how leaders are handling the pandemic (12%).

Top Issues for Young Voters in 2020 Presidential Election
Thinking about public issues, what are the top three most important in determining your vote for president?
% Selecting
Accessibility and affordability of family healthcare 32
The environment and climate change 31
Racism 29
Getting the country back to "normal" after the coronavirus 25
Police treatment of communities of color 21
College affordability 17
Gun violence prevention 16
Lack of well-paying jobs 16
Tax rates 16
Immigration 15
Affording rent/a mortgage 14
Abortion 12
How leaders dealt with the coronavirus 12
LGBTQ+ rights 11
Concern about losing your job 8
A secure retirement 7
Other 8
Tufts University Tisch College-CIRCLE
Figures are combined first, second and third choices.
CIRCLE/Tisch College 2020 Pre-Election Youth Poll

Young voters' top election issues differ by racial and ethnic group, particularly when it comes to matters that touch on race like racism and immigration. Specifically, 48% of Black youth, 36% of Asian youth and 32% of Latino youth chose racism as one of their top three issues, compared with 22% of White youth.

In addition, 46% of Black young people chose police mistreatment of people of color as a top issue, and 24% of Latino youth chose immigration -- in both cases, these were the highest ratings from any of the race/ethnicity groups surveyed for these issues.

Issue Importance in 2020 Election, Selected Issues, by Race and Ethnicity
Thinking about public issues, what are the three top most important in determining your vote for president?
White youths Black youths Hispanic youths Asian youths
% % % %
Accessibility and affordability of family healthcare 35 27 26 35
The environment and climate change 33 14 30 45
Racism 22 48 32 36
Getting the country back to "normal" after the coronavirus 27 20 21 26
Police treatment of communities of color 17 46 21 14
Immigration 14 8 24 13
Tufts University-Tisch College-CIRCLEFigures are combined first, second and third mentions
CIRCLE/Tisch College 2020 Pre-Election Youth Poll

Many Youth Lack Information on Registration and Mail-In Voting

Young people may be considerably more engaged in the current election than they were in the last two, but the poll raises some doubts about whether they will be ready to register and vote in this year's election. This is especially true given that the ongoing pandemic may make in-person registration and voting more difficult.

Three in 10 young people surveyed do not know if they can register to vote online. Additionally, fewer young people have experience with mail-in or absentee voting (24%) than voting in-person on Election Day (53%).

Alternately, 64% of youth say they would know where to go to find information about casting a vote by mail if their state moved to all-mail voting for the November election. A similar percentage, 65%, say they have seen information about how to vote by mail.

That means 75% of young adults lack personal experience voting by mail and over a third -- more than 15 million potential voters -- lack vital information about how to go about it.

These challenges of access and information may especially hinder participation by the youngest adults (ages 18-21) who have turned 18 since the last presidential election. Historically, this youngest cohort has participated in elections at lower rates than their slightly older peers. Now these youth, many of whom are new to the voting process, have to contend with the additional difficulties of voting during a pandemic.

In this survey, youth aged 18 to 21 were more likely than those aged 22 to 29 to say they did not know if their state had online registration: 36% vs. 29%. Only a quarter of those aged 18 to 21 have voted by mail before, but there are major regional differences: 46% of youth in the West have voted by mail, compared with 20% everywhere else, likely because several Western states like Oregon and Washington, and some populous counties in California, use mail-in voting as the default method of casting ballots.

Bottom Line

In 2018, young people voted at their highest rate ever in a midterm election, more than doubling their electoral participation from 2014. The poll indicates that youth have carried their political enthusiasm to 2020, and that the crises of a global pandemic and racial injustice have only cemented their desire to pursue social change in and out of the voting booth. Whether they have the opportunity to do so will largely depend on election officials, educators, media, youth activists and other stakeholders working to ensure that all young people have all the information they need to register and vote.

The poll does find that if youth participation is hindered in this election, it would do more to harm Democrat Joe Biden than Republican Donald Trump in states where youth have voted more Democratic than the state overall, as more than twice as many young people indicate a preference for Biden as do so for Trump. The margins are even larger for Black and Asian youth.

Read more about this research on CIRCLE's website.

Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
+1 202.715.3030