Millions of College Students Are Eligible to Vote, but Most of them Won’t
Updated: Oct 28
On November 3rd, millions of Americans will flock to the polls, but nearly 80 million others will have already cast their ballot weeks earlier, either through absentee or mail-in voting. While the process to vote ahead of the upcoming presidential election differs from state to state, all Massachusetts residents can vote by mail this year.
For college students in Boston, this means that they can either register to vote in the Commonwealth or request an absentee ballot for their home municipalities. This comes at a time when young voter turnout is on the rise: from 2012 to 2016, voting among college-aged students in the U.S. doubled from under 20% to 40%, according to research from Tufts University.
Historically, despite making up one of the largest voting electorates, 18-24 year-olds are least likely to show up on election day. In the 2016 general election, 62 million Millennials were eligible to vote, and seven million post-Millenials (Generation Z) had just reached voting age. Now, because there are more eligible Gen Z voters, this demographic is bound to make a considerable impact — if they show up.
In Massachusetts, over 68% of all registered voters cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election, a higher turnout than most other states. Massachusetts is reliably blue, having supported the Democratic presidential candidate since 1988.
When it comes to showing up to vote, there are a number of barriers for young voters, such as a high migration rate for college or work, which requires voters to update their registration frequently. Another challenge is a lack of government-issued photo identification: fewer young people are obtaining driver’s licenses, meaning that the majority of states will turn them away on election day without proper id.
Massachusetts does not require any documentation for voters — unless this is their first time participating in a federal election — but Bostonians face another unique voting problem: polling locations. Twenty sites in Boston have changed this election cycle, and due to COVID-19 safety procedures, there could be longer lines, which only contributes further to safety concerns with regards to the virus.
A main concern with absentee ballots has been fraud, but there are systems in place to prevent that in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts ballot includes the warning “under penalty of perjury” beside the signature line, stating that forgery would be a criminal offense. Since 1979, there have been just four cases of voter fraud in the Commonwealth.
However, issues have arisen in Boston and beyond with mail-in ballots — hundreds of residents in six different districts received ballots with the wrong deadline, which stated that ballots were due Sept 1 instead of Nov 3. These were revealed to be leftover instructional sheets from the primary a couple months ago.
At Boston University, the closest ballot drop-off sites are the Boston Public Library in Back Bay and at BPL’s Honan-Allston Branch Library in Allston. Because neither of these locations are immediately accessible to on-campus students, the process is actually easier for out-of-state students.
While voting may be relatively easier for in-state students, there are other faults to the absentee ballot system that could jeopardize the college student vote for those registered outside Massachusetts. It’s estimated that at least a million mail-in votes country-wide could be thrown away on the basis of late delivery (the most common reason ballots are discarded), no witness signatures (which are required in only some states), and absent or mismatched signatures.
In Massachusetts, the voter registration deadline is Oct 24 while absentee ballots are due on Oct 28, leaving only one more day to request, receive and return the ballot. This will put a great deal of pressure on absentee voters in the state to return their ballot as quickly as possible.
Southern states, particularly Mississippi, Alabama and North Carolina, require a witness or notary to sign off on a ballot in order for a mail-in vote to count. With students voting absentee in the midst of a pandemic, they may find it difficult to secure a notary public, and as of last month, a lack of a witness signature became the main reason votes have not been counted in North Carolina. And often, notaries only sign documentation at a price.
Signatures in particular could cause trouble for the youth vote. When a voter signs their absentee ballot, their signature is scrutinized and compared to previous signed documentation on record. But signatures change, and those less experienced with signing their name, like young people, could risk disenfranchisement.
Young people are also becoming increasingly disillusioned with the voting process, instead turning to alternative ways for political activism, like spreading information via social media or participating in protests. Senator Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) failure to secure the Democratic Party’s nomination earlier this year corroborates that, as well as within-party challenges to Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) — two popular figures among young voters for their progressive ideologies.
In terms of political affiliation, trends suggest college-educated people are more likely to vote for Democratic Party candidates, meaning an increase in the youth vote could sway the 2020 presidential election in the favor of former Vice President Joe Biden. At a time when several swing states will be in flux, college students could be the deciding factor in November’s election.