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Online voter education by local election officials is a powerful tool for reaching 100% student voting
Local election officials engaging in voter education efforts online can help address barriers faced by student and first-time voters, but they need resources to support these efforts
One of the big success stories from the 2020 presidential and 2018 midterm elections was the increase in youth voter participation. Youth voter participation rates, however, still lag the national average, and student and young voters face significantly higher barriers to voting than older voters. Between registering to vote for the first time, changing one’s registration after moving to college, requesting mail ballots, or finding polling places, young voters are especially prone to missing key information needed to cast a ballot that will ultimately be counted.
Young voters are more likely to make errors when registering to vote, face challenges to their eligibility because of a less developed signature, and are more prone to have their mail ballot rejected because of errors on the ballot or missing return deadlines. Voter education by local election officials—the individuals responsible for administering elections across the over 6000 local election jurisdictions in the United States—can help young voters overcome these barriers.
Voter education efforts by local election officials in both online and offline spaces can increase rates of successful registration. Our research shows that voter education in online spaces is a particularly powerful tool to reach young and first-time voters. Social media has an especially big impact. Many students rely on these platforms to seek out information and maintain connections. Active online engagement on social media platforms like Facebook can decrease the likelihood that all voters— and young voters in particular—will cast a mail ballot that is rejected.
While the presence of local election officials on social media shows promise for helping young voters overcome information barriers, students are still at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing information about how to vote from local election officials. Nearly 90 percent of election officials have an election website where voters can seek out, at minimum, contact information for their local election official, yet only about 32 percent have an active Facebook account.
But a Facebook account may not be especially helpful for young voters, as more and more students are choosing to engage on social media across a different set of platforms. Only about 9 percent of local election officials are active on Twitter, and less than 2 percent are active across two of the other more popular social media platforms for young voters: Instagram and TikTok. These differences likely speak more broadly to the limited extent that local election officials are connecting with young, first-time voters specifically.
We do not suggest that the solution is for local election officials to simply “get online” and “get with the times.” This statement ignores the real challenges many election officials face in the wake of the 2020 presidential election and glosses over legitimate resource shortages of time, staff, and money that many election offices are currently experiencing.
But as new voters unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the system, young voters in particular require trusted sources of information about voting processes. Our research points to not only a need for local election officials to be more active in engaging young voters in online spaces, but also a need for the resources to support their efforts and limit threats to election officials. Most importantly, it highlights the significant gaps that young voters still face in accessing the ballot and the importance of active outreach and connection by local election officials within their communities to young voters in both on and offline spaces.
Thessalia (Lia) Merivaki is an Assistant Professor in American Politics at Mississippi State University in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration and a member of The Carter Center's U.S. Elections Expert Study Team since September 2020. She received her PhD from the University of Florida in Political Science in 2016.
Mara Suttmann-Lea is an Assistant Professor of American Politics in the Department of Government and International Relations at Connecticut College, and host of the podcast What Voting Means to Me. She received her PhD from Northwestern University in 2017.