The student vote: Why it counts and how colleges can help in the process

Raising awareness and aiding young students in navigating a complex system can make them more civically engaged.
By: | January 5, 2022
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A mission for most colleges and universities is to ensure students graduate and become global and community leaders. Building awareness of civic duty and separating fact from fiction also helps them become better citizens and more likely to take part in voting.

College students have been a key demographic component of the past three election cycles, becoming far more actively involved around issues such as racial and social justice, climate change and the economy. However, many young voters who want to navigate the complex system face obstacles—such as gerrymandering, for example—and need guidance.

“For us, foundationally, if you’re not helping teach the newest members of democracy about how the political process works and what different officials do and the impact that it can have on their lives and their community, you are failing to live up to that civic mission,” says Mike Burns, national director of Fair Elections Center’s Campus Vote Project.

The Center works with 280 institutions of higher education and democracy fellows to help break down the walls that prevent students from voting. Clearly, the message is being received. According to the Institute of Democracy & Higher Education (IDHE) at Tufts University, student voting has increased 14% since 2016 to 66%. At the University of Delaware alone, the student vote hit 75% in 2020.

“In spite of all the things that might actually hold down turnout, especially for student voters—the displacement, the pandemic, the changes in the rules—we saw record turnouts,” Burns says. “It is really impressive in light of all the additional hurdles that were very unexpected.”

Still, there are many barriers that have kept those numbers from rising further—from apathy to lack of knowledge to redistricting. Although some states improved access to registration, including early voting and vote-by-mail procedures, others did not. That could be key as elections gear up again later this year.

“There is a fraction of states that, based on the political outcomes, are purposely trying to restrict access to registration voting for a lot of different voters,” Burns says. “What we see, especially with student voters, is because they’re generally newer to the process and a highly mobile population, we see partisan voter suppression. When states that are doing that, it makes it much harder to be able to help students see past the barriers.”

But Burns says, this generation is determined to have their voices and votes count. “Millennials and Gen Z are very active and want to be activists on a lot of issues,” he says. “Part of the work we do is teaching them about civil rights and social change movements, but also making sure that they understand that voting is part of that work, along with protests and other types of activities.”

In addition to providing an abundance of resources for students and faculty, including student voting guides, the Fair Elections Center also has a student-run network, a legacy initiative it launched for Historically Black Colleges and Universities in 2020 and it works with a number of other groups including the IDHE to help boost awareness around voting. The Campus Vote Project’s fellows are very active in 10 states—Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Texas and Arizona, places where voter suppression has been seen in the past. The IDHE also launched a Campus Boundaries Project to show where campus communities are in relation to political districts.

Helping students navigate the system

How can colleges be difference-makers when forces outside of campus—urban policing, the Insurrection, racial injustice and changing voting districts—might undermine the process or sow misinformation?

“We think a healthy democracy that makes the best choices for a local community is one where everyone has a voice and is actively engaged,” Burns says. “That same philosophy, just like that core philosophy of how we should govern ourselves and how we get the best outcomes for our communities, also applies to the campus community.”

Simply providing information to students who might be newer to the process is very helpful, especially well in advance of elections. “Even in a nonpartisan way, there are a lot of campuses can do through various channels of communication—whether it’s through move-in or registration or freshman orientation—presenting students with information about registering, local community officials who are on the ballot and how to get involved, especially students who might have moved far away from home,” Burns says.

But there is a far bigger role administrators can play in ensuring students are civically engaged and aware of their voting rights.

“There are still structural, systemic issues we need to overcome to get us closer to that 100% participation,” Burns says. “There’s a lot of responsibility for those leaders to speak up and do what they think is right on behalf of their campus community. And also letting students find their own sources or having the skills developed to understand how to navigate different sources and find accurate information for themselves.”

College and university leaders should be asking several questions in trying to bridge those gaps for students.

“Back when we used to do conferences, one of our favorite icebreakers was asking people about their first memories of voting. The vast majority shared stories about going with a family member to the polls for the first time,” Burns says. “So for folks who are in these campus communities, how do we replicate that? How do we reach folks who might come from a community where they’re the first person in their family who is eligible? How do we demystify and break down those barriers for them?”