Student voting soared to an all-time high of 66 percent in the 2020 presidential election, the latest study from the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education found.
However, turnout rates for students of color were lower than those of their white counterparts. White students had the highest voting rate -- 71 percent -- in the 2020 presidential election and Asian American students the lowest, at 51 percent, according to the IDHE study. Hispanic students had a turnout rate of 60 percent, Black students 63 percent, and 66 percent of students who identified as multiracial cast ballots in 2020.
With the 2022 midterm elections just a year away -- and as a handful of states head to the polls today -- student voting groups are ramping up efforts to help institutions expand voter participation across the campus population. Ignoring the equity gaps in student voter participation can reinforce patterns of marginalization, the study noted, and it strongly encouraged campuses to examine the political experiences of different ethnic and racial groups to understand the turnout gaps. Over all, IDHE recommended that institutions seek to motivate already-registered voters to cast their ballots -- known as the yield rate -- rather than focusing primarily on registering more new voters.
“Historically, we’ve seen that students of color, and particularly Black students, tend to be positioned in situations where they don’t have a lot of opportunity to engage in the electoral process, whether that’s by gerrymandering, lack of education, or they’re at institutions that sometimes are historically underrepresented and underresourced,” said Stephanie King, director of strategic initiatives at ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, a nonpartisan organization committed to increasing college student voting rates.
King, along with others in the Students Learn Students Vote Coalition, a nonpartisan network dedicated to increasing college student voter participation, recently released a new edition of the Strengthening American Democracy guide, which is designed to help faculty, staff, students and other campus stakeholders devise action plans to increase nonpartisan civic learning, political engagement and voter participation on campuses. The guide helps institutions set short-term and long-term goals for student voting. For example, by 2028, an institution might aim to increase the student voting rate by 20 percentage points over 2016, with students of color voting at the same rates as white students.
King said a major focus of the new edition is to connect the work of diversity, equity and inclusion with civic engagement and democratic participation.
“We want to make sure that all eligible persons, regardless of identity or affiliation, can have a seat at the table,” King said. “And that they know their rights and abilities to cast their votes and they understand the power of their vote, because sometimes that’s not fully articulated in a variety of settings.”
The guide recommends that each institution assemble a diverse working group that reflects its campus and community, with “intentional and equitable” inclusion of diverse voices. It also provides suggestions on how to create diversity within the campus’s voting coalition.
SLSV Coalition director Clarissa Unger, who worked on the guide with King, said they wanted their work to reflect the fact that the current cohort of students is one of the most diverse generations in U.S. history.
“One of the things that we set as a coalitionwide goal was to help make sure that students of different races and ethnicities are voting on par with white students,” Unger said. “In the IDHE report, we saw that those were more on par with each other, which is really exciting.”
To accompany the guide, the SLSV Coalition, Democracy Works and Maine Students Vote created a game, Votes and Ballots, to help each institution create an individualized action plan that takes into account its population, resources and student voting rates. Like the guide, the Votes and Ballots game, which is usually played at summits and conferences centered on civic engagement, was updated this year.
“As the Strengthening American Democracy guide is being updated, especially around diversity, equity, inclusion and justice, we wanted to make sure that Votes and Ballots was also having a stronger focus on that,” said Maddie Wolf, SLSV Coalition social designer.
The game, available online, provides an action plan template for administrators, faculty, students and staff to determine their goals, constituents, campus demographics and voting rates. The tactic cards let players estimate how much time, money and personnel their institution can devote to developing a student voter turnout plan. And a strategy board lets players rank each action’s level of importance and plot it on a timeline. The updated digital version includes a virtual board for participants to collaborate in real time and adapt their plans going forward -- which, Wolf said, will make it easier to prepare for generations of incoming students.
“This tool really makes it so that it’s sustainable, adaptable, and really centers diversity, equity, inclusion and justice,” Wolf said. “And by making your plan, that’s how you institutionalize it. Planning is such a big part of it, because instead of just doing random stuff … being able to have a plan makes it sustainable, so if new people come in, they have that plan to look at.”
Additionally, the SLSV Coalition and ALL IN Democracy Challenge released on Monday a first-of-its-kind tool kit and survey of 100 campuses and 100 local election officials on how they can work together to increase student civic participation. One recommendation was that institutions establish an official point of contact with a local elections office that plans to be on campus for the long term. Additionally, the survey recommended including election officials in campus coalitions and events, establishing voting sites on campus, and developing an internship program with the local elections office.
Involving local election officials can help fix equity gaps in student voting, said SLSV Coalition ACLS Leading Edge fellow Beatrice Wayne, because they typically have a nuanced understanding of the unique voting barriers in any given community -- whether that’s lack of language access, polling place closures and consolidations, voter ID requirements, or reduced voting hours.
“In one way, our tool kit is really sort of giving suggestions to help local election officials and campuses overcome these structural barriers that overwhelmingly apply to students of color and marginalized groups,” Wayne said.
Eddy Zerbe, SLSV Coalition special projects director, noted that the survey was the first step in what he hopes will be a long partnership between local election officials and campuses, and which will include establishing more polling places on campus.
“It’s critical to have good election official relationships to be able to do those types of things,” Zerbe said. “And that’s exactly the type of work that we want to be doing, but is very much the beginning step of ‘how do you get these relationships started?’”
King from ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge said that what’s most important in boosting the student vote is providing streamlined communication from administrators to students, faculty and staff. Among other things, that means registering students to vote during campus orientation, giving them Election Day off and making sure they know where to find the campus polling locations.
“If that’s more regularly communicated across all kinds of reporting lines for institutions, they tend to have higher registration and turnout rates,” King said. “They tend to have a campus plan that can always keep humming in the background. It doesn’t need to be restarted every two to four years.”
King said she hopes the Strengthening American Democracy guide and her organization, which works with nearly 1,000 campuses, will allow institutions to plan for 2022 and beyond.
“We hope all 1,000 campuses have a plan in place as we’re nearing December, that folks are ready to go for the 2022 midterm elections,” King said. “And they’re not looking at it as if, ‘Oh no, the fall semester is here and we have to do something,’ but instead being, ‘We know exactly what we need to do to ensure our students have the ability and are educated about the electoral process.’”
Zerbe is optimistic that that is indeed the case.
“We’re at a place right now where the student voter engagement space has more people and resources than ever devoted to this specific part of our democracy,” Zerbe said. “And we really see this as one of the next steps in being able to harness this energy and bring students into broader civic engagement initiatives, knowing how their community works and knowing the work that goes into administering elections.”