Driving Campus Impact: Using NSLVE Data to Guide Student Voter Registration and Turnout

By Margaret Sasser and Karena Cronin

Through our Vote Everywhere program, 54 dedicated Campus Teams work to deepen civic engagement on their campuses by registering voters, getting out the vote, educating their peers, and addressing voting impediments through policy or legislative changes.

How do we drive this work on each Vote Everywhere campus and draw insights about our success?

The 2012-2016 National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) report, entitled Democracy Counts: A Report on U.S. College and University Student Voting, provides invaluable insight into national trends in student voter registration and turnout between the 2012 and 2016 Presidential Elections. In 2017, Vote Everywhere Campus Partners also received individualized institutional NSLVE reports, which focus on campus-specific trends in student voter registration and turnout.

These NSLVE reports help our Campus Teams to take an evidence-based approach to engaging students of diverse backgrounds in the political process and laying the groundwork for a lifetime of civic engagement.

The Value of NSLVE

NSLVE is created by the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education (IDHE) at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. With a free and easy report sign-up, each institution can view its students’ voting rates through a variety of lenses, including but not limited to the voting method, age group, undergraduate class year, gender, race, ethnicity, and field of study.

The IDHE encourages institutions to share their reports publicly and to think strategically with students, faculty, and administrators, as well as with partners like The Andrew Goodman Foundation, about how to implement its insights on their campuses.¹

What actionable items can be gleaned from the reports to sustain and improve civic participation on campuses? If Theater majors on campus are registering or turning out at lower rates, why not engage them by tabling in front of the Theater building? Another option might be to organize discussions on public policy issues that resonate with Theater majors and to sustain these conversations.

If first-year students are registering or turning out at lower rates, why not institutionalize voter registration as part of new student orientation or move-in day? What will it take to achieve this, considering a campus’ commitment to inclusion as well as student leadership?

Our Campus Teams are asking themselves these types of questions and engaging relevant campus stakeholders as they make their NSLVE reports actionable and look ahead to 2018’s elections.

2012-2016 National Trends

According to the national NSLVE report, Democracy Counts, the following student voting trends arose between the 2012 and 2016 Presidential Elections:

  • Turnout rose
  • Women voted more
  • Hispanic and Asian turnout up; Black turnout down from a high baseline
  • Youngest students saw turnout increase
  • Social science majors voted at significantly higher rates than STEM majors
  • Turnout rose in private four-year institutions and women’s colleges, fell at HBCUs
  • Institutions in New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania led the turnout increases

Trending upward, young-student voters aged 18-21 turned out at a higher rate in 2016, increasing to 44.8% from 40.7% in 2012. Although “older Americans are more likely to vote,” the percentage of young-student voters, aged 18-21, increased alongside the percentage of every student age group.

Both Black-student turnout and HBCU-student turnout saw a downward trend. According to Democracy Counts, Black-student turnout dropped from 54.9% to 49.6%, a decrease consistent with the downward trend in overall Black-voter turnout in 2016.² In addition, HBCU-student turnout fell dramatically from 50.5% to 39.9%.

With these national trends in mind, how do Vote Everywhere campuses compare?

Vote Everywhere and NSLVE Findings: Initial insights

Based on 26 NSLVE reports from Vote Everywhere Campus Partners, we can draw some initial insights into student voter turnout on Vote Everywhere campuses. These Campus Partners’ NSLVE reports revealed the following trends:

  • Students at more than half of the reporting institutions³ voted at a higher rate in 2016 than the 2016 voting rate for all institutions (50.4%) with the highest rate reaching 64.2%.
  • Students at 81% of the reporting campuses voted at a higher rate in 2016 than in 2012.
  • Student voting rates at 50% of the reporting campuses saw an increase of at least 5.0 and up to 12.0 percentage points from 2012 to 2016.

Data from four of the campus reports shared with Vote Everywhere denotes a decline in the voting rate from 2012 to 2016. Of these, two are down from a high baseline but still exceed the 2016 voting rate for all institutions. Two others mirror national trends from Democracy Counts, specifically, that turnout fell at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and that “institutions in Georgia, Wisconsin, and Mississippi had the largest decline.”4

Fourteen Vote Everywhere Campus Partners made their NSLVE reports available to the public.The majority of the data in these public reports correspond to national trends with a few notable exceptions. First, while campuses in the Southwest region turned out at the lowest rate of all regions, Arizona State University’s student-voter turnout increased from 42.6% in 2012 to 58.7% in 2016. Second, Miami University saw an increase, rather than a decrease, in Black-student turnout from 49.5% to 56.1%.

Third, both the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor and the University of Wisconsin – Madison experienced a decrease, rather than an increase, in 18-to-21-year-old students’ voting turnout. In addition, the University of Wisconsin – Madison experienced an overall decline in turnout, consistent with the rest of the state.

Between 2012 and 2016, students at Bowling Green State University (BGSU) increased their voting rate by 10.1 percentage points. BGSU’s voting rate of 52.4% in 2016 also exceeded the voting rate for all institutions of 50.4%, which was a substantial accomplishment.

While socio-economic factors and dynamics on campuses and in their surrounding communities influenced the largely positive trends discussed above, this data could also indicate that Vote Everywhere’s civic engagement programming positively contributes to student turnout.

The Vote Everywhere Model, Campus Impact, and NSLVE

The IDHE hypothesizes that “pervasive political discussions, strong faculty-student relationships coupled with political learning across disciplines, and vibrant electoral activities are attributes of a robust campus climate for political engagement.”

The Vote Everywhere model is well positioned to support the development of these enabling attributes on campuses. Rather than only focusing on elections, Vote Everywhere supports multi-year efforts to facilitate student civic action and voter engagement on campuses. Our Campus Teams undertake to embed civic and non-partisan political discussions into everyday campus life. We empower our students to learn about inclusive democracy and the power of their voices by doing.

In Wisconsin, home to statewide restrictive voting rules, our students have taken action to address new voter ID laws which make it difficult for out-of-state students to vote. Although the university provides valid Wisconsin voter IDs, on-campus awareness about and accessibility to them is low. The Vote Everywhere Campus Team sought to remedy this impediment through a coordinated effort with student housing to host voter registration workshops.

Take our Vote Everywhere Campus Team at Bowling Green State University (BGSU) for example. Although state laws in Ohio do not permit students to use their student IDs as voter IDs, BGSU provides students with proof of residency documents and is home to an on-campus polling site. In 2017, our Campus Team hosted a City Council candidate forum and met with campus administrators to advocate for the institutionalization of voter registration into Residence Life.

The national and campus NSLVE reports have and can guide efforts on campuses to foster civic and voter engagement. The continued and enhanced use of NSLVE data can only bolster our efforts to make young voices and votes a powerful force in democracy.

Note: Because current NSLVE authorizations are expiring this year, campuses who already participate in NSLVE must renew their participation by August 2018. To renew your campus’ NSLVE participation, complete this form. The Vote Everywhere team encourages our Campus Partners to renew and will support each of our teams during this process.

¹ For more information about strategic implementation, check out Vote Everywhere’s webinar, “Put Your NSLVE Report to Work,” with Adam Gismondi, Ph.D., of the IDHE.

² According to the IDHE, Black-student turn out decreased slightly less than overall Black turnout: 5.3 percentage points versus 7.0 percentage points.

³ Fourteen of the 26 reporting institutions.

The Andrew Goodman Foundation aims to tackle this national trend of decreased voter turnout at HBCUs by sustaining support and engagement on these campuses. Vote Everywhere’s presence in the Deep South places us in a unique position to play this supportive role.

5 Arizona State University – Tempe, Bowling Green State University, Kutztown University, Mesa Community College, Miami Dade College, Miami University, Montclair State University, Rutgers University-New Brunswick, SUNY Geneseo, Tufts University, University of Florida, University of Louisville, University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, and University of Wisconsin – Madison.