SALT LAKE CITY — Between a global pandemic and nationwide protests over systemic racism, the upcoming general election feels more important than ever for many young people. But one of those motivating issues is also making it difficult to turn out the youth vote.
Youth voter turnout has been a persistent problem in the United States. In the Democratic primaries, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, hoped motivating young people to get to the polls could bring the nomination. But only about 5%-19% of young people cast ballots on Super Tuesday, according to an analysis by Tufts University. And that was an improvement in most states compared to 2004 and 2012 (years when only one party held a “competitive primary.”)
However, one poll found that 77% of people under 35 were more motivated to vote this year than any year before. But that same survey found more than half of that age group said they don’t have the resources or knowledge they need to vote by mail, which many states are ramping up for in November, National Public Radio reported.
Voting poses unique challenges for some, especially for voters ages 18-20 casting a ballot for the first time. If they move frequently for college or internships, they may need to rely on the less familiar process of absentee ballots. They have difficulty finding correct information on how to register, or lack the correct forms of identification required to do so.
Campus voter registration drives and other efforts by voting rights groups would streamline and simplify the process for young first-time voters. But social distancing and other COVID-19 precautions have all but eliminated those solutions, leaving many to figure out for themselves how to exercise their right to vote.
As a relatively new resident of Utah, I decided to register to vote in the state ahead of the November election, a process that can be time-consuming and at times confusing. Here’s what I learned about registering to vote in a new state.
Online or paperwork
I was already familiar with an absentee ballot, which my mother forwarded to me in past elections from my home base in Northern California. (I moved so frequently after graduating from college, that I never changed my address or bothered to start getting mail at whichever place I was temporarily calling home.)
Because of my experience with absentee voting, mail-in voting wouldn’t be a problem. But first I had to register.
I was excited to see Utah has online voter registration. This should take me five minutes, I thought. Except, to register online you need an Utah ID or driver’s license. I don’t have an Utah ID, and my driver’s license isn’t expiring anytime soon, which didn’t make me super motivated to make a trip to the Utah Driver License Division office.
I was instead directed to click on the link for a voter registration form, which asked me for home and mailing address, and the last four digits of my Social Security number in lieu of any state identification card number.
Alright. Just needed to print the form. Luckily I had an old, dusty printer stashed away in a closet, but, of course, there wasn’t any printer ink, so off to the office supply store. When I finally got the form printed, filled out, put in an envelope, looked up my local county clerk’s address and procured a stamp, I sent the form off and hoped I’d done everything correctly.
Maybe a trip to the Utah Driver License Division office would have been easier.
The process was annoying and a bit inconvenient for me, but overall doable. For some young people, however, those little steps can add up until they become insurmountable. Getting an ID costs money and takes some time. Even buying a stamp and envelope can be small barriers that stop some people from registering.
“It’s just a lot more steps for young people who understandably have a lot on their minds right now and are busy,” said Nikila Venugopal, the voting rights coordinator for ACLU Utah. “It might just be that extra step that creates an obstacle.”
One problem young people continue to face is that they don’t know how to register to vote.
A recent poll found that about 30% of voters under 29 did not know if their state offered online voter registration, and of those who answered “yes” or “no,” 25% were wrong.
Young people can register to vote online in most states in the U.S. However, Montana and Wyoming are two of a few exceptions. In Montana, you must either fill out a form in the county election office or print out a voter registration application and mail it.
The survey also found that a third of young voters haven’t seen information on absentee ballots and don’t know where to get information about receiving their ballot via mail. Yes, there is the internet and information should be easy to find, but government websites and ease of use vary greatly from state to state, and nothing is as easy as having someone who’s gone through the process before guide you.
Most youth voter registration programs, which usually provide the easiest process, are no longer an option. The pandemic has eliminated many traditional forms of outreach, like voter registration fairs at high schools and colleges, or — in states where in-person polling has been closed — same-day registration.
Voterise, a nonprofit that focuses on registering Utahns between the ages of 18-29, has had volunteers, masked and equipped with hand sanitizer, attend protests and register people.
Mailing it in
Despite the cumbersome process of getting registered without a driver’s license, Utah is actually much better equipped to hold an election during a pandemic because of its robust vote-by-mail system, Hope Zitting-Goeckeritz, the executive director of Voterise, said. The state is just one of five that conducts all elections by mail.
The others are also in the West: Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii. This year, California will also mail every registered voter a ballot.
While in states like Nevada and Idaho, voters can request absentee ballots and effectively vote by mail.
President Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee claim voting by mail can lead to fraud. But there is little evidence proving that claim, and a red state like Utah has shown the practice does not favor Democrats.
Research has shown, however, that vote-by-mail is an effective way to increase voter turnout among young people.
Pantheon Analytics, a firm founded by former Obama campaigners, found that in 2016 Utah’s “low-propensity voters” (including young people) had an increase in turnout “in vote-by-mail counties relative to their counterparts in non-vote-by-mail counties.”
After registering to vote, young people have to make sure that they properly fill out their ballot and submit it on time.
Mailing in your ballot is actually pretty easy. (I’ve always mailed in my ballot and have never seen the inside of a voting booth).
You don’t even really need a stamp. The United States Postal Service said it plans to deliver every ballot regardless of whether or not it is stamped and charge the local election office on the backend, Reuters reported. They do, however, ask that you buy a stamp if your state requires it.
Or, in many states like Utah, you can drop your ballot off at a designated ballot box. You can usually find them on your county’s website.
Yes, it’s a lot of steps. But as more organizations like Voterise go online, the information needed can be found with just a bit of Googling.
Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated the author had to visit the Department of Motor Vehicles to obtain a new driver’s license. In Utah, a driver’s license is obtained through the state Driver License Division.