As the coronavirus pandemic has upended normal balloting, more than half of voters under the age of 35 say they don't have the resources or knowledge they need to vote by mail in November, according to a new poll.
The poll was conducted by Global Strategy Group for NextGen America, a group that is focused primarily on engaging and turning out young voters.
"The problem is we've never voted in a pandemic before and some of these young people have never even voted before," said Ben Wessel, NextGen America's executive director. "And so when we look at the information about how to print out or, do you have the ability to print out a ballot request form or do you know how to get stamps or do you even know where to find more information? We're really understanding that we have a big job to do."
NextGen America was founded by the billionaire hedge fund investor turned climate activist Tom Steyer, who also waged an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination this year. NextGen America endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden in May.
That need for more information about how to mail-in vote underscored in the poll could be particularly acute among young people of color who may face even greater challenges.
Mary-Pat Hector, 22, says she's planning to vote in person this November but says she's also spoken to people who are skeptical of mail-in voting.
"A lot of Georgia voters are actually afraid to vote by mail," she said. "Many people who applied for an absentee ballot never received that ballot via mail. And they're afraid these same tactics will occur during the November the third election. And that's just something we can't afford."
Christina Williams, a political science student at Clark Atlanta University, says she often acts as in-house expert for her friends who are trying to navigate voting issues.
"I can't always answer their questions because we're all from different states. I may know Georgia and Pennsylvania, but I may not know California and Texas and everywhere else," Williams said. "So the fact that it's not more of a uniform, or even just a clear system. It is very difficult."
Past studies have shown that in the 2018 midterms, youth engagement spiked compared with four years prior.
Groups like NextGen America and others dedicated to mobilizing young voters hope to capitalize on that energy in a moment where the nation has been rocked by unrest in response to the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police and persistent racism. Meanwhile, a pandemic has ravaged the United States and an economic downturn has left tens of millions of people unemployed.
The poll shows that those under 35 have broadly favorable views of the Black Lives Matter movement, but disapprove of how President Trump has handled the coronavirus pandemic and issues of racial inequity.
Zoe De Leo lives in Phoenix and supported Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary. She now describes herself as "Biden by default."
That's not an uncommon sentiment given that Biden did not have as much support among young Democrats as Sanders did.
"So to be completely honest, I'm feeling a little bit disheartened with everything that's going on in the world. But I am remaining hopeful for this upcoming November election," she said. "I feel like we can have some real change. So hopeful and disheartened at the same time."
Still, 77% of voters under 35 in the NextGen America survey said they were more motivated to vote than in any prior election.
Barbara Sprunt contributed to this report.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's remember a vital fact about this fall's election - like all elections, it will be determined by who shows up. People who vote have a voice. When people don't vote, the election math is clear - they do not count. And in this time of pandemic, it matters a lot which voters think they can vote safely. Many states are leaning more heavily on voting by mail, and a new survey suggests that many younger voters do not yet know how to navigate this system. NPR's Juana Summers is with us. Good morning.
JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What do you learn from this survey?
SUMMERS: Yeah. So first of all, this polling comes from NextGen America, a group that is focused primarily on engaging and turning out young voters.
SUMMERS: Now, we should note that this group was founded by the billionaire former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, who ran for president this year, and that NextGen America has endorsed Joe Biden's campaign. But this polling provides a really interesting window into perspectives from people under the age of 35. And one of the biggest things that stood out to me was that, in this poll, only about half of young voters say that they have the resources and information that they need to vote by mail in November.
I talked with NextGen America's Executive Director Ben Wessel about all of this.
BEN WESSEL: When we look at the information about, you know, do you know how to print out - or do you have the ability to print out a ballot request form or do you know how to get stamps or do you even know where to find more information, we're really understanding that we have a big job to do.
INSKEEP: And you mentioned a Democratic-leaning group is producing this survey. You can see the Democrats' interest because they presume that younger voters tend to lean toward Democrats. What have you heard when you talk with voters?
SUMMERS: Yeah, so when I talk to voters and organizers, one thing they often point out is that the need for more information about how to navigate this is particularly urgent among young people of color, who may face even greater challenges with voting. That is something that came up in this conversation I had with Mary-Pat Hector. She's 22 and from Atlanta. And she told me she is planning to vote in person this November, but she's also heard people - some of her peers - who are skeptical of whether voting by mail will actually work.
MARY-PAT HECTOR: A lot of Georgia voters are actually afraid to vote by mail. They're afraid to vote by mail. Many people who'd applied for an absentee ballot never received that absentee ballot via mail, and they're afraid that these same tactics will occur during the November 3 election. And that's just something we can't afford.
SUMMERS: Steve, I also talked to Christina Williams. She is from Pennsylvania but is attending Clark Atlanta University, where she studies political science. And Christina told me, you know, when it comes to voting by mail or anything, really, she's the kind of person who takes the initiative and digs deep to find the answer she needs, and she did that with learning how to vote by mail. But she also told me that, especially for college students, this is not easy to figure out.
CHRISTINA WILLIAMS: A large portion of our population - they come from out of state. So a lot of my peers will reach out to me for help, and I can't always answer their questions because we're all from different states. I may know Georgia and Pennsylvania, but I may not know California and Texas and everywhere else. So the fact that it's not more of a uniform or even just a clear system, it is very difficult.
INSKEEP: Juana, you've just spoken there with a couple of voters who seem really engaged in the process. But isn't there always, even in a normal year, a question about how engaged many younger voters are?
SUMMERS: Yes, Steve. I think we have a variety of this question every election year. The data does tell us that there was a spike in turnout among young people in the 2018 midterms. And while we can't predict what's going to happen in 2020, I think a lot of people are looking towards just how engaged young people are in the recent protests around police brutality and systemic racism, and they're wondering if that engagement will translate into votes in the fall.
I want to introduce you to one more person I talked to. Her name is Zoe De Leo, and she lives in Phoenix.
ZOE DE LEO: So to be completely honest, I'm feeling a little bit disheartened with everything that's going on in the world. But I am remaining hopeful for this upcoming November election, definitely. I feel like we can have some real change. So hopeful and disheartened at the same time.
SUMMERS: Yeah. And that's not an uncommon sentiment, given that Joe Biden did not have as much support among young Democrats as Bernie Sanders did. That said, though, Steve, in this polling, 77% of voters under the age of 35 said that they were more motivated to vote in this election than in any other election in their lifetime.
INSKEEP: OK, so young people are motivated to vote, don't necessarily know how to get it done this year. Who's trying to help them?
SUMMERS: Yeah. Steve, let me give you one really creative example. If you were on the social app TikTok this week, like I was, you may have seen some playful content talking about voting by mail. Something that came across my feed when I was scrolling was a video from a drag queen in Florida urging people to catwalk to the mailbox and cast their ballot by mail. That was part of a push that NextGen America did this week as part of a national vote-by-mail day.
They're not the only group doing this work; there are a ton of organizations nationally, as well as in local communities, that are looking to engage and inform young people about voting so that they have the tools they need in order to fully participate in November.
INSKEEP: Juana, thanks.
SUMMERS: Thanks so much.
INSKEEP: NPR's Juana Summers. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.