Many parents and grandparents of college students still view campuses as hotbeds of political engagement, as they famously were in decades past. Yet low voting turnout among college students and young people, in general, has been a constant in American elections. However, in recent years, college students have become a slightly more significant factor in state and national elections. This trend is among the findings in Tufts University’s recent National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement report, an analysis of the voting patterns of 10 million students attending over 1,000 institutions in the U.S.
The Tufts study reveals that student voters no longer sit out election sen masse. In fact, about 48% of college students voted in 2016 — up from 45% in 2012. A 3% rise may not seem significant, but it equates to 300,000additional votes cast.In this era of an approximately even split between two major blocs of voters, student votes represent a potential difference in the outcome of many state and even national elections.
There still remains plenty of room for improvement in the turnout rate of students. As a demographic segment, despite the rise in voting among college students, they still lagged behind the voting rate of the general population in 2016. 48% of students voted compared to national overall turnout rate of 58%. Still, researchers noted that the slope of the growth curve in student voting exceeds that of the general turnout. As a result, student voting has become more significant as a factor in elections.
Under the banner, “Old Enough to Fight… Old Enough to Vote”,18, 19, and 20 year olds were granted the right to vote by the 26th Amendment to the Constitution in 1971. Congress enacted the Education Act of 1998 that, among other things, established clearly that students were free to vote either in their state of domicile (college campus) or their official residence (home). Since students are normally in school in early November, a majority consider it more convenient to vote there. In addition, students usually become more informed on issues important to their campus’s community than to their home locality. But the Education Act of 1998 notwithstanding, students often find it difficult to register to vote in their college’s locality. And, in many cases, that difficulty is intentional.
There remains, after decades, substantial ambiguity regarding federal, state, and local regulations as they apply to the registration of students in their college’s jurisdiction. Communities vary widely in their requirements for student voter registration.Administrative interpretations range from a nearly complete absence of restrictions (other than attending a college in the state), in Iowa and Missouri, to not-very-subtle efforts to discourage all such registrations, as in New Hampshire and Idaho.
Spurred by a desire to help students become better citizens, a growing number of colleges and universities are using their institutional influence to overcome obstacles to student registration and to raise voter turnout on their campuses.
In a recent article in the New York Times, Robert Donohue, associate director of the Center for Civic Engagement at Northwestern University, is quoted as saying,“It’s exciting that colleges are starting to wake up to the role that they should play to teaching people how to be citizens of a democracy. Hopefully, we’ll live up to our charge and start turning out more active citizens and not just scholars.”At Northwestern, which incorporated voter registration into orientation for new students in 2011, over 91% of students are registered to vote. In 2016, 64% of students voted in the national election, up from 49% in 2012.
At Harvard University, nearly 1,400 incoming freshman registered to vote in 2017 as part of their mandatory online check-in process by using the TurboVote voter registration software. The TurboVote software, a product of Oracle Corporation, was added to Harvard’s processes through a collaboration between the Harvard Institute of Politics (IOP) and the Registrar’s Office.This was the first time that Harvard has integrated voter registration into the student check-in process. The goal of the IOP project was to develop a model that could be replicated at universities across the country.
The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor has a long tradition of political activism. That’s why Edie Goldenberg, a political-science professor, was shocked to learn the percentage of students at the school who cast ballots in the last national election was a mere 14%.“It was a wake-up call,” Dr. Goldenberg said. “Nobody realized that so few students were turning out to vote.”Dr. Goldenberg has initiated a number of new programs with the goal of more than doubling student turnout in the 2018 election.
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