Not So Hard to Vote?

Despite reports to the contrary, students who wanted to cast ballots in 2004 had little difficulty doing so, political scientists find.
September 5, 2006

Every election year brings reports that college students have trouble registering to vote, especially if they try to do so in the college towns where their campuses are located.

But a new study of college students in the hotly contested 2004 elections challenges that view. Not only did most students vote, but the vast majority prefer to register in their hometowns, not their college towns. And only a very small minority had any difficulty registering to vote.

These findings come from a national survey of students at four-year colleges, aged 18-24, in the weeks immediately after the 2004 election. The study was led by two political scientists -- Richard G. Niemi of the University of Rochester and Michael J. Hanmer of Georgetown University -- and was presented Saturday in Philadelphia at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association.

A good example of the traditional thinking about students and voting comes from Harvard University's Institute of Politics, which in 2004 published a guide to voting for college students that said that only 39 percent of students want to vote in their home towns.

But Niemi and Hanmer found that when asked where they preferred to vote, 77 percent said that their first choice was in their hometown. In addition, they found that of the small percentage (3.6) of students who said that they tried to register, but could not do so, they were split evenly between those who tried to vote in college towns and hometowns.

Over all, nearly 88 percent of students in the sample were registered, and while the authors expressed concern that some students may have reported being registered when they were not, they said that the low figures for people saying they couldn't register suggested that wasn't a problem.

Registration Status of Students, 2004

Status Percentage
Registered in hometown 62.0%
Registered in college town 25.6%
Tried to register, but unable to do so 3.6%
Thought about registering, but didn't 3.9%
Simply didn't register 4.8%

Registration is, of course, not the same as actually voting. But the survey found that 77.3 percent of students surveyed did vote.

Of those who registered to vote in their hometowns, students were more likely to vote if their homes were close to their campuses. Of those registered in hometowns whose campuses were less than 30 minutes away, 85.2 percent voted. But the numbers remain high for those further away, with 75.6 percent of those registered in hometowns three or more hours from campus voting.

Not surprisingly, there is also a correlation between distance from hometown and whether students used absentee ballots. But only for those three or more hours away from their polling place did a majority of those voting use absentee ballots. The authors of the paper, however, speculate that many students may be using the new "early voting" systems in which an increasing number of states are allowing people to vote in person in advance of Election Day.

The paper found links both between choice of major and out-of-class behavior in predicting whether students will vote. Turnout was lowest among engineering, mathematics and science majors, as well as among education majors. There was a positive correlation between talking about politics and current events outside of class and voting, but the numbers don't suggest that only political junkies vote.

Student Behavior and Voting Patterns

Discuss politics, current events outside class Registered Voted
Every day 93.2% 87.7%
Once a week 89.1% 76.3%
A few times a month 80.2% 66.3%
A few times a year 75.0% 66.3%

While Niemi and Hanmer question some of the longstanding beliefs about college students and voting, they don't contest the reasons the issue has long been considered important. College students are more likely than others in their age group to vote, and college educated people vote at higher rates than others.

College groups have been encouraging students to register, especially during election years, and this one is no exception. A coalition of higher education associations is the sponsor of Your Vote, Your Voice 2006, which is attempting to support registration drives at 3,700 campuses.


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