Social Studies

Parkland Students Led Surge in Youth Turnout. But Some of Their Votes Didn’t Count

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 25, 2019 2 min read
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File this one under depressing: Young voters’ absentee ballots in Parkland, Fla., were much more likely to go uncounted for arriving late or to be thrown out for other reasons, than ballots cast by other youth voters in the state, according to data first reported by the Washington Post’s Tim Craig.

About 1 in 7 mail-in ballots, or 15 percent, submitted by Parkland residents aged 18 to 21 were thrown out or arrived late, according to the analysis by Daniel Smith, the chairman of the political science department at the University of Florida. For Broward County, which includes Parkland, that figure was 10 percent. That’s much higher than the rate for all Florida voters aged 18 to 21, which is about 5.4 percent of mail-in ballots. (The statewide average of rejected or uncounted mail-in ballots for all ages was 1.2 percent, the Post reported.)

Analyses show that youth voting rates in the 2018 midterm elections boomed in many states, even surpassing general voter turnout in many of them, and the surge of youth activism in the wake of the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland was cited as one likely factor. In fact, the students’ Road to Change bus tour, which hit dozens of cities last summer, was just as focused on encouraging students to vote as it was on drawing attention to how gun violence affects young people.

The Broward County Supervisor of Elections wouldn’t comment on the analysis, the newspaper reported. But it did say that its data showed that the rejection rate in Broward County within the 18-to-21 age range—at 2.8 percent—was far lower than Smith’s estimate.

So what accounts for this discrepancy? Broward County officials blame a poky U.S. Postal Service system for delayed ballots. But the story also surmises that Florida’s voting laws, which require election officials to match the signature on each voter’s absentee ballot with the one on their voter-registration forms, might have been a problem for young people whose personal styles—including their signatures—are still evolving.

The ACLU and Smith had previously argued that Florida’s laws disproportionately hinder young voters and specific ethnic groups, based on their analysis of 2016 data.

Florida, and Broward County in particular, have also faced a number of recent lawsuits over voting in the wake of the midterms. This is partly a Florida phenomenon, where elections are routinely so close that they often move to automatic recounts and legal challenges. But the data also underscore that U.S. voting systems just aren’t all that user-friendly in general, especially for young people.

“Our systems are not yet quite voter-centered enough, especially when we think about young people as an important stakeholder,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, the executive director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning, or CIRCLE, a Tufts University group that studies and analyzes youth civic participation. “If we don’t do it right for the first-time voters, we can’t deem the electoral system to be serving its main purpose.

“I hope they can get to the bottom of this,” she said about the Florida situation.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.