Young People Are the Worst in California at Voting by Mail

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Theories abound about why young people don’t vote much, often centered around disaffection with the political system. (Note: “Politicians: Millennials Won't Vote Because They Hate You” in Businessweek)

But a new study (pdf) from the University of California, Davis, suggests that part of the problem is they have difficulty voting by mail. 

The school’s Center for Regional Change found that voters 18-24 made up 8.1% of the electorate voting by mail in California’s 2012 statewide election, but cast 23% of the 69,000 screwed up Vote-by-Mail (VBM) ballots. Only the 25-34-year-olds had a higher percentage of screw-up than voters and came within five percentage points of the younger crowd’s mistake rate.

Sixty-five percent of the rejected youth VBM ballots were tossed because they arrived late. Twenty-three percent were bounced because matching signatures didn’t match and 7% forgot to sign them altogether.

Their elders suffered from the opposite problem. They sent them in on time, but forgot to sign them more often. Thirty-four percent of rejected VBM ballots from 55-64-year-olds lacked a signature and 44% from the 65-plus crowd.

Overall, only 1% of VBM ballots were rejected by county election officials, a much better percentage than valid signatures regularly gathered to put initiatives on the ballot. But that’s still worse than most states, according to the Pew Center on the States’ Election Performance Index.

Pew also found that Californians are the worst in the nation at returning their VBM ballots, jumping to 29.4% in 2012 compared to 16.2% four years earlier. VBM voters can still show up at the polls by using provisional ballots on-site, but there aren’t many of them.

Californians have been voting by mail since the 1860s, but it was pretty much restricted to soldiers until 1979. No-excuse absentee voting―you didn’t need one to vote by mail―gave everyone the option, but voters couldn’t make that a permanent choice until 2002. Voting by mail increased just about every year and topped 50% of all ballots cast in 2012.   

Voting by mail has proven to be far more popular in states that actually want their residents to vote. A map of who votes by mail looks like a mirror image of the map of states that have passed tough voter ID laws, mostly in the Republican-controlled South and West.

Critics of voting by mail often raise the specter of fraud, a complaint used to justify Voter ID laws that disproportionately disenfranchise citizens who typically vote for Democrats. Loyola University Law School professor Justin Levitt wrote in the Washington Post earlier this year that after four years of study he found just 31 verifiable cases of voter fraud out of 1 billion ballots cast.  

So even if California’s youngsters find voting by mail a challenge they are, at least, giving it an honest effort. 

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

New Research Shows CA Youth More Likely to Have Their Vote-by-Mail Ballots Rejected (by Alexandra Bjerg, California Forward)

Improving California’s Vote-by-Mail Process: A Three-County Study (The California Voter Foundation)

The Elections Performance Index 2012 (The Pew Charitable Trusts)

Disparities in California’s Uncounted Vote-by-Mail Ballots: Youth, Party and Language Preference (University of California, Davis, Center for Regional Change) (pdf)

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