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Case Study: Gen Z Voters

July 2023

Background

In the more than 50 years since the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18, youth voter turnout has remained frustratingly low. In fact, in 2020 when overall voter turnout was the highest in a century, young voters participated at roughly the same rate as in 1972, the first presidential election in which voters under 21 were able to vote.

 

Many have long held that young people don't vote because they are apathetic or disillusioned by politics. This reasoning is not supported by research, though, which finds that young voters face numerous obstacles to casting a ballot, whether in person or by mail. Young voters are more likely to be transient at the time they come of age to begin voting and therefore need to register to vote or update their voter registration far more frequently than their older counterparts. Any barriers to voter registration then, including a lack of online registration, on-campus registration services, automatic registration, and same day registration, mean that many young voters are excluded from the election process altogether.

 

Young voters also have difficulties accessing in person options due to scheduling or transportation barriers. They are more likely to have inflexible schedules, are less likely to own a car, and accessing other transportation, such as rideshare and public transit, can be expensive and time-consuming. Strict voter ID requirements also make it harder for young people to vote, especially in states with restrictive laws that prohibit college student IDs for voting. And confusing rules about absentee ballots coupled with postal delivery delays make voting by mail more difficult for younger voters.

All of these obstacles combine to make voting difficult for younger voters. Consequently, the turnout gap for voters under 25 remains high. In 2020, for example, Census data shows the turnout gap for young voters under age 25 was 16 percent compared to voters 25 and older. And young voters were half as likely to vote as voters over age 65.

Mobile voting as an added option would address many of the access issues that inhibit participation by young voters and other historically disadvantaged groups. As in mail voting, mobile voting brings the ballot to the voter, enabling them to vote from the convenience of their mobile device or computer and without the need to get time off work or school to vote, overcome transportation issues, wait in long lines, or face disqualification due to strict voter ID requirements. But unlike mail voting, mobile voting places the ballot on the device people use everyday - and particularly young people, reducing the risk that a ballot by mail is lost, misdelivered, or rejected.

Beta Testing New Tech for Mobile Voting

To ensure mobile voting technology meets the needs of young voters - and is easy for them to use, the Free Democracy Foundation (FDF) and Tusk Philanthropies joined forces with 18by Vote to host a mock election to enable young voters to test new technology under development by FDF. 18by Vote is a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) youth-led organization that seeks to help young people understand how, when, and why they should vote. Tusk Philanthropies is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization seeking to expand access to mobile voting options in part by supporting efforts to develop and maintain secure technology for mobile voting. Free Democracy Foundation is a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization that supports technology solutions to ensure all eligible voters in the U.S. can participate in the democratic process.

 

FDF’s core technology, VoteHub, was used in the mock election. VoteHub is a mobile voting system developed with grant funding from Tusk Philanthropies and replicates the paper absentee voting process on a mobile device. To use VoteHub, voters are asked to enter identifying information that is used to match a voter registration record and confirm the voter is eligible to vote. VoteHub then requires a multi factor authorization to ensure the eligible voter is attempting to vote. Voters must enter a one-time access code that is delivered to the email address in their voter registration record. Once they are authorized, voters mark their ballot on the digital device and then sign an absentee affidavit affirming their identity and eligibility. Finally, the ballot and affidavit are separately encrypted and prepared for submission to a digital ballot box.

 

To ensure the ballot is recorded and encrypted correctly, voters are presented with an option to check their ballot before submitting. This step is performed through an external verification site and is best done on a separate device, like a laptop or tablet. To initiate the check, voters must enter a seven-digit checking code displayed in the VoteHub app. Once the code is entered, a pairing key displays in both the app and the verification site. Voters must confirm they match. The verification site then displays a decrypted version of the voter's ballot as it was recorded in the digital ballot box. The voter can review to ensure nothing changed any of their votes. Once verified, the VoteHub app will re-encrypt the ballot and give voters the opportunity to perform the check again or submit their ballot. Once the ballot is submitted, VoteHub presents a confirmation screen with an I Voted sticker and a tracking code. The voter can use the tracking code to confirm the ballot was received correctly and to later verify when their affidavit is verified and the ballot is extracted for decryption, printing, and counting offline.

Voter Workflow
Voter Workflow Diagram (High Level) (2)_
The Mock Election

To conduct the mock election, 18by Vote, FDF, and Tusk Philanthropies collaborated on overall election planning, with 18by Vote taking the lead on recruitment and creating the ballot content, while FDF and Tusk Philanthropies were responsible for setting up the election and communicating with voters. To recruit participants, 18by Vote took the lead on promotion and recruitment through its social media feed. Recruitment began on Monday, June 26 with posts and reels on Instagram. Participants were directed to a Google form to "register" to participate. The registration form collected their name and email address and whether they used iOS or Android devices. 18by Vote also posted a Youth Breakdown discussing how mobile voting can help remove barriers for young voters. The registration deadline to participate was Friday, July 14. Ultimately, a total of 108 young people signed up to participate in the mock election.

 

Tusk Philanthropies staff served as the election officials, working to set up the election in the VoteHub system, configure voting requirements, and add ballot data. 18by Vote staff helped create the ballot content, which included a presidential race among different characters from the Super Mario Brothers movie released in April, a county commissioner race among different Marvel and DC comic book characters, and a ballot question about the use of artificial intelligence in schools. The ballot content was not part of the marketing strategy and was not mentioned in any of the social media posts designed to recruit participants.

 

FDF was responsible for adding registered voters to the eligible voter database and to TestFlight to enable voters using iOS devices to install the beta version of VoteHub. Android users were able to install the app directly from the Google Play Store.

Voting opened at 8:00am ET on July 17, 2023 and closed just before midnight on July 19. In order to mimic a real-world election, voters were notified when voting opened via an email from Tusk Philanthropies that contained instructions on how to install the voting application. The email also contained "mock" voter identifying information the voter could use in voter look up and onboarding. This "mock" information was provided instead of collecting and using PII from the participants. Finally, the email included a Voting Checklist that alerted voters of important information they might need to have available when using the app, such as a separate device and links to the verification sites they could optionally use to perform the ballot check and to track their ballot after submitting.

Results and Findings

Over the three-day election, 22 total ballots were cast. Of those, 10 voters also performed the optional ballot check before submitting their ballot. The high ballot checking rate of 45% provides promising evidence that voters are willing to take a few extra moments to verify everything is working correctly, particularly when using mobile voting to vote, and that the process is easy for voters to use.

Survey results further reinforced this finding. Thirteen of the 22 voters completed a survey about the experience. Of those, 53.8% reported that the ballot check was very or somewhat easy, and 77% of the respondents said they would definitely or probably perform the check when using mobile voting in the future. Overall, over 61% of the respondents thought the process was definitely or somewhat secure, and nearly 70% indicated that they would definitely or probably want to use mobile voting technology in the future.

 

We were concerned with the overall low participation rate. Just 20% of the "registrants" ultimately cast a ballot in the election. This was in spite of a raffle drawing for a new iPad mini to voters who cast ballots and multiple emails that were sent over the three days reminding voters to vote. We speculate that one of the reasons for the lower participation rate was our reliance on email for communication. Most of the voters first learned about the mock election via social media, but after they signed up, all communication then moved to just email. Studies have found that email is the least used and least preferred communication method for Gen Z. Respondents in surveys have described getting an email "like getting stabbed," and "the eternal chore," feelings that were exacerbated during the pandemic when communications moved primarily to email. A study in 2020 found that workers under 30 prefer to use Google Docs, Zoom, and text messaging to communicate. Others have added Instagram messaging as a medium commonly used to communicate with younger adults.

Given this research and our own observations, we plan to experiment with other communication tools in future test elections targeting younger voters to measure whether it has a positive impact on voter participation. After all, the young voters were interested enough when they learned about the mock election to sign up through a Google form. It seems likely that if we use social media and text messaging to announce when voting is open, we are more likely to meet them where they are and increase the turnout rate. Future mock elections will test this - and if our findings are positive, we plan to offer these learnings as best practices for election officials to use in live elections using mobile voting in the future.

About VoteHub

VoteHub is a fully accessible mobile voting application through which any eligible voter can vote from the convenience of their mobile device. VoteHub was designed to make voting easier and more accessible for voters with inherent obstacles to traditional voting options. And by using advanced cryptography and end-to-end verifiability, VoteHub can make our elections more transparent and secure and increase confidence in our democracy. VoteHub is owned and licensed by the Free Democracy Foundation and will be offered for use by election officials at no cost. VoteHub is currently in beta testing and is expected to be ready for use in 2024.

 

For more information about VoteHub and the Free Democracy Foundation, visit www.freedemocracyfoundation.org.

 

To learn more about Tusk Philanthropies' work to expand access to mobile voting, visit www.mobilevoting.org.

 

And for more information about 18by Vote, visit 18byvote.org.

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