Students want to vote; colleges ought to help
On Election Day 2016, Ainsley “AJ” Ashman Jr.’s electrical engineering professor cancelled class so her students could go vote. AJ set off to do just that. His polling place was not nearby, the lines were longer than he expected, and by the time he got back to the University of Michigan’s campus he had missed most of his thermodynamics class, a course in his major.
This past summer, with the 2018 midterms approaching, AJ decided to take on the Election Day transportation problem for the 46,000 students at his university. The city of Ann Arbor had sliced up the area around campus into five wedge-shaped districts that diluted the student vote. As a result, assigned polling places for many students were far away. AJ obtained previous student voting numbers at the polling places, considered where students would be located on campus, and got to work planning bus routes. Then he hit a snag: the cost of renting buses he needed would be $15,000.
This story doesn’t fit a picture of apathetic youth. Low youth participation in U.S. elections is commonly attributed to lack of interest, lack of civic responsibility, and lack of knowledge or attention. But access to the polls is a serious obstacle to voting, especially for students because they typically are new voters and voting someplace they have not lived before. In fact, the correlation of voting rate with age primarily is due to the frequency with which young people move, and not disinterest. Because they move often, they are less likely to be registered at their current address and therefore less likely to vote.
Students can be great voters, however, when their needs are met. Northwestern University has integrated voter registration into orientation, so that all new students are given the opportunity and information to register to vote when they start college. With on-the-ground, in-person assistance for every new student, voter registration has risen to 91 percentof eligible students, and voter turnout has grown to 64 percent. That’s a higher voting rate than the national average for citizens of all ages.
Northwestern’s program originated with a student group in 2008 (guided by one of the authors). That effort showed it was feasible for students to obtain absentee ballots from their home states, and that students, in fact, voted at a high rate in this way. Recognizing the potential, the university picked up the group’s program and adopted it as an every-year process for all new students. Otherwise it would have remained a quadrennial volunteer activity reaching only a fraction of the students.
Voting is a habit, and habits are best acquired when a person is young. Unfortunately, too few universities have allocated serious resources to student voter engagement and outreach. Instead they have treated it as an optional, extracurricular activity. Math and writing aren’t taught by volunteers at tables in the cafeteria; civics shouldn’t be, either. Colleges need to incorporate civic education into their core activities and classrooms.
An active approach has seen promising results at colleges and universities participating in The Andrew Goodman Foundation’s Vote Everywhereprogram, which provides resources, training and support to students on numerous campuses, working to register and turnout voters, bring down voting barriers, and tackle social justice issues in their communities. Stony Brook University, one of the oldest partners in the program, has successfully embedded voter registration and participation into its campus culture. As a result, the group has successfully registered 15,000 students since 2015.
At Louisiana State University, another partner school, Valencia Richardson mobilized fellow students to demand a change to state law so that public universities’ student IDs would work as voter ID. With support from the university’s administration, staff, and the Andrew Goodman Foundation, they succeeded in making voting easier for more than 100,000 students in Louisiana.
In the case of AJ Ashman at the University of Michigan, he got initial skepticism from administrators at the university. They were tolerant of student interest in civic participation, but concerned that any active support of voting access could be seen as political. Luckily, a new University of Michigan program, Turn Up Turnout, agreed to guarantee payment to the bus company, as AJ and friends continued to round up contributions to defray the cost.
Today, more students are aware of the importance of voting. The high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and the subsequent March for Our Lives have mobilized the youth electorate. According to an analysis by TargetSmart, Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 are registering and expected to vote at a higher rate this year than in previous elections. Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, many of whom became activists after the shooting, have a message that calls for voting as a way to effect change. High school students who are too young to vote have launched #BeMyVote, imploring their parents, older siblings and friends to vote.
The early results of this awakening are encouraging. TargetSmart’s state-by-state analysis shows that younger voters could have an outsized impact in key battleground races. Pennsylvania — which has November elections for U.S. senator, governor and many critical House races — has recorded a 16 percent youth-voter registration surge. Youth voters make up over 61 percent of all new Pennsylvania registrants.
Last year’s high school students are becoming the next wave of college students, fired up about voting as a means to effect change. We need to meet their passion on college campuses. As AJ says, “A university isn’t taking its commitment to education and citizenship seriously unless it’s making a serious commitment to voting — not just by supporting student-led initiatives, but also by crafting its own policies and programs that actively encourage voting.”
About the Authors
Justyna Krygowska is communications director at The Andrew Goodman Foundation, which works to make young voices and votes a powerful force in democracy. Michael Peshkin is a professor of mechanical engineering at Northwestern University.