Democratic Values and Local Student Voting

Dave Brinker sheds some light on the current scope of nonresident students’ influence on local elections -- and how it calls us to reflect on the core values of American democratic society and higher education.

October 22, 2019

Inside Higher Ed recently published an article on a report on college student voter turnout, "Democracy Counts 2018," compiled by my organization, the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University. The article stimulated conversations in the comments section about the role of higher education in American democracy. Many of those comments reflected reader concerns about how much impact college students have, and should have, on local elections.

Readers debated key ideas about how democratic principles meet electoral practice: Is it fair that students at large universities in small towns can influence local elections? Does living on a college campus really constitute “residing” in the wider community? Are voter registration systems too relaxed and vulnerable to exploitation?

Those are important questions for higher education and our democratic society. We are excited that such conversations emerged from the report’s release; as an applied research shop, our mission is to engage higher education communities in conversation about the civic education role of American colleges and universities.

Data from our ongoing National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement, the only national study of college student voting, shed some light on the current scope of nonresident students’ influence on local elections. The study is based on the voting records of more than 10 million students at more than 1,000 colleges and universities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and it combines student enrollment records at participating higher education institutions with public voting records to estimate electoral participation at campuses across the United States. Our data set includes information about where students are from and where they are registered to vote, which allows us to infer out-of-state student voting rates and to determine if they vote at home or near their campus.

Using this information, we’d like to dispel some myths, raise some questions and keep the conversation going.

What the Numbers Say

A large majority -- 79 percent -- of students in the 2018 national study database attended college in their home state. The image of the college student traveling to a distant campus and living in residence halls only applies to about 16 percent of students nationally. Most live off campus and commute to attend college near their permanent homes. Yet the students who do attend college in a different state -- nearly 3.75 million in 2018, by our estimates -- are not a small population. Thanks to our national voting data, we can examine this group’s impact on U.S. elections more closely.

And the fact is that we’ve found little evidence that out-of-state college students are redistributing the U.S. electorate and affecting local elections. First, such students participate in elections at much lower rates. In 2018, the out-of-state student voting rate was 26.5 percent compared to 40.1 percent among in-state students.

Second, they overwhelmingly choose to vote in their home districts. Of the out-of-state students who voted in 2018, 82.7 percent did so in their home state rather than where their college is located. It is also worth reiterating that of all college students in the United States, out-of-state students only account for one-fifth of the total to begin with. Extrapolated to the national college population, that implies that fewer than one million out-of-state students voted, and fewer than 200,000 voted in elections outside their home states -- or just 0.2 percent of the U.S. voting population. Empirically, out-of-state college students are not a formidable voting bloc.

Those numbers do not capture students attending college in their state but still far from their hometowns, which describes the bulk of enrollees at many states’ flagship public university campuses. But we can assume that our insights into voting patterns of out-of-state college students apply in some measure to those students, as well. Our data suggest that the scope of the actual influence of college students on local elections is low, in general.

Three Values-Based Views

Of course, specific campuses and local elections matter as much as overall trends. So, more important than the data themselves are the principles in question.

The U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that students have the right to vote in either their home state or near the campus where they reside. But rights do citizens little good if they cannot exercise them. As a research institute that studies democracy, we are concerned with efforts to suppress the student vote. All else being equal, every American should support rules that make civic participation easier and be wary of those that make it more difficult.

That said, all else is never equal. So, the essential question in this case is “Should college students be allowed to vote at their 'place of domicile' -- in other words, in the campus precinct?” That is a wonderful question, because it requires us to reflect on a few core values of American democratic society and higher education. We face real trade-offs; both restricting and expanding voting access have their hazards. I would like to offer brief thoughts on three key values-based perspectives that frame the conversation.

Local residents should decide local elections. College towns often have a political dynamic that appears to pit college students against settled residents. College students and long-term residents may have different interests, and it seems unfair that students are able to influence policies that they won’t have to live with.

But college students are not the only population that challenges the definition of who counts as a local resident. As Sheri Iachetta, registrar of Charlottesville, Va., observed in a 2008 congressional hearing, housing transience among students is not entirely dissimilar to that of so-called snowbirds -- people who maintain seasonal residences -- and the idea that students are more invested in the college itself than committed to the local community is true of “any number of transient professionals … doctors in [residence], visiting professors.” Yet we see special value for all local constituents to encourage students to develop connections to the community, foster better town/gown relationships and cultivate a sense of localized civic responsibility. Communities can benefit from the energy and fresh perspective of their highly motivated college student populations, and students should have some influence in local politics, given that they are affected by the policies and political climate of their surroundings.

In a democratic society, political participation should be easier rather than harder. Laws imposing barriers to voting arise from concerns about the integrity of the electoral system. Increased national attention to immigration policy, along with allegations of voter fraud, have motivated legislators to enact laws that impose higher costs on electoral participation through stricter proof-of-residency requirements or restricted voter-identification options. In principle, neither of those ideas are bad ones; in a world without trade-offs, anyone should prefer more certainty about the identities of voters.

But we do not live in such a world, and such rules conjure our country’s disturbing history of debate over who is qualified to vote and how hard they should have to work to prove it. Attempts to impose requirements on would-be voters are nearly always justified by perfectly rational principles, but those requirements can often have negative impacts, especially on vulnerable populations. Contemporary incarnations of rules involving voter identification, residency definitions and voter registration practices appear to disproportionately affect college students, sparking recent litigation in New Hampshire and Tennessee. A growing body of credible research reassures us that voter fraud is negligible in the United States, which leaves little justification for rules that deter turnout.

Civic engagement should be a core component of the college experience. One of the functions of American higher education is to support upward economic mobility for its students. Our core conviction at the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education is that political mobility should be just as important, because its consequences are just as lasting. A citizenry should be as well equipped to contribute to public life as a collectively reasonable, deliberative body politic as it is to contribute to the labor economy as a capable workforce.

At the institute, we spend a lot of our energy improving our process for generating accurate and useful statistical data, which we hope helps galvanize and guide civic engagement efforts on campuses. But at the end of the day, increasing and enhancing engagement in politics is largely about changing culture: how we talk about politics across lines of difference, what commitments we expect of our fellow citizens and how invested we are in the processes that underpin democracy. We aim to improve political learning, discussion, equity and participation, and we view those outcomes as reflections of institutional commitment and climate. Colleges and universities can be central to that transformation, if they embrace it as one of their essential roles.


Dave Brinker is a senior researcher at the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University.


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