July 2021 marked the 50th anniversary of the ratification of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. The amendment was a symbol of trust in young people, as well as a willingness to do whatever it took—including changing the nation’s most sacred document—to encourage their participation in democracy.
Half a century later, student voting is not where it should be. We have come to accept and expect low youth voter turnout. Although 2020 was a banner year for young voters—we broke 50 percent turnout—we hardly reached a staggering number, and we still trail the rest of the electorate by double digits. And now that we have moved past the 2020 presidential election, the task of motivating young voters will only become harder. On Nov. 2, 2021, local elections took place across the United States, determining the course of many cities, counties and states for the next several years. It remains to be seen whether 2020’s civic engagement translated to 2021, especially since, compared to the high-profile presidential elections, only a token effort has been made to improve voter turnout in so-called off years.
Low youth voter turnout is hardly the most pressing problem American democracy currently faces. Racialized voter suppression, partisan gerrymandering and the general erosion of confidence in elections are all graver—and more immediate—threats. But voting is a habit that needs to be formed early, and the longer the youth turnout gap remains unaddressed, the more severely its consequences will be felt in elections to come.
We are members of Ivy League Votes, a nonpartisan coalition of campus organizations dedicated to civic engagement and voter turnout. As we have worked to mobilize our peers and our institutions, we have run into countless unnecessary obstacles standing between us and the ballot box.
Our goal is neither to ignore our own privilege nor to complain about mild inconveniences. But when students at universities with deep pockets, competent administrations and the stated goal of molding informed, active members of society consistently fail to vote, it is a sign that something is deeply, structurally wrong.
Our universities have endowments that run into the tens of billions. They have centers for democratic engagement, institutes of politics and faculty members who urgently warn that the right to vote is under attack. And yet student bodies in the Ivy League consistently fall short on Election Day. This problem is only exacerbated at institutions with fewer resources, where students are equally determined to vote but lack the same—albeit minimal—institutional support. The failure to increase voter participation is a valuable and worrying display of how structural deficiencies can keep youth turnout low and condition us to see low turnout as normal and acceptable.
Our universities often point to statistics as proof of their prestige and success. They boast low acceptance rates, high standardized test scores and myriad Nobel laureates as faculty members. Yet actual voter turnout, the one statistic that is arguably the most relevant measure of actual civic engagement, is distinctly absent from the universities’ messaging.
In the 2018 midterm elections, only one Ivy League institution (the University of Pennsylvania) attained over 50 percent voter turnout. That is both because students lack the information and motivation to vote and because our universities have largely failed to implement obvious, common-sense reforms to make voting easier—even though they have publicly committed to achieving 100 percent voter turnout among voting-eligible students.
For example, until the 2020 election cycle, Yale University students were unable to receive election mail and ballots on campus. Yale has no institutionwide system through which students can receive mail, and students were instead forced to pay for a P.O. box if they wished to vote absentee. This disenfranchised many students, especially those who could not afford the P.O. box fee.
Some institutions—like Brown University, Columbia University, George Washington University, Lesley University and a handful of others—have taken action by making Election Day a campus holiday so students, faculty and staff alike can take the time to vote or serve as poll workers. In addition, 13 states have designated federal election days as class-free days for public universities.
But efforts to implement this reform at universities like Harvard and Princeton have been met with silence and dismissal. In November 2020, Princeton students overwhelmingly approved a nonbinding referendum calling on their administration to implement a voting holiday. Despite the clear show of support from the undergraduate student body, and breaking from the custom of prompt responses to student referenda, the university did not act on the topic for a full year. Then, in November 2021, Princeton’s president, Christopher Eisgruber, answered a direct question about it, but with a rather indirect answer. “Our approach,” he said, “is to emphasize the need for managers to be flexible and supportive because there are lots of ways to vote, including by mail in New Jersey. We don’t think a holiday is the right way, but we think it's important to support efforts to increase capacity to vote.” This response is characteristic of many administrations’ actions—placing the onus on individuals to work around the university’s requirements while ignoring the fundamental problem that being “flexible” is a much less effective response for students and staff alike than a clear, universitywide policy on taking time off to vote.
The fact that voting by mail has been implemented, haphazardly and perhaps temporarily, should not be used to justify stonewalling reform efforts. Even when voting by mail is an option, would-be voters still have to contend with registration and ballot request deadlines and may be left with in-person voting as the only option if those are missed; the lack of an Election Day holiday also makes volunteering as a poll worker much more difficult. Students would have to rely on the flexibility of their professors, and staff would have to rely on the flexibility of managers, since New Jersey, along with 27 other states, does not guarantee paid time off to vote.
Beyond university barriers, state voting legislation frequently excludes students. In New Hampshire, the state Legislature has repeatedly attempted to weaken the student vote through intentionally confusing residency and ID requirements. As the largest private institution in New Hampshire and one that draws the vast majority of its students from out of state, Dartmouth College and its students are a main target of these bills. In the spring of 2021, bills were proposed that would consider any person who has an address in another state ineligible to vote in New Hampshire, bar educational institutions from being used as domicile addresses and end the use of college identification cards as voter ID.
While these bills all died in the spring, students in New Hampshire still face the chance of losing the right to vote due to laws that directly impact them. In 2011, the New Hampshire House speaker captured the prevailing dismissive attitude toward young voters during the discussion of a bill that would have made voting more difficult for them: “They are kids,” he said, “voting their feelings, with no life experience.” The 26th Amendment doesn’t list immaturity as a justification for disenfranchisement, and young people are owed the opportunity to exercise their voice through their vote.
Many of us have met with administrators only to be told that it is not their job to make voting easier and that, rather, the onus should be on students to make it to the ballot box. Indeed, administrators have told us it is actually beneficial for students to face barriers to voting while we are in college so that we get used to the barriers we will face after graduation. There seems to be an all-too-pervasive idea that voting should be mired in difficulty and inconvenience.
A Clear Path to Improvement
We believe that the ability to vote is worth fighting for, but we reject the idea that students need to practice facing barriers now in order to overcome them in the future.
Instead, university administrators can contribute to a culture where youth voters are motivated to cast a ballot. By making election days class-free holidays, they can encourage students to fulfill both their academic and civic responsibilities instead of forcing them to choose between one or the other. By integrating voter registration into annual student orientations, university administrators can ensure every eligible student is registered before classes begin. By providing universal, free access to mail, stamps, envelopes and other voting materials, university administrators can ensure that no student misses the opportunity to vote because it’s too expensive or too hard.
Administrators should be racing each other to achieve 100 percent turnout among their student bodies. If voter turnout was among the metrics by which colleges were judged, perhaps we would already be there. But regardless of past miscommunications or disagreements, if universities became active partners in affecting change, they could achieve their stated missions of functioning as laboratories for democracy.
On the state and national level, too, the path to improvement is clear. Common-sense reforms like automatic and same-day voter registration, no-excuse absentee ballots, better funding and organization of mail-in ballot distribution systems, and equitable polling place allotments (including on college campuses) not only benefit student voters—they also strengthen our democracy. These reforms are especially important to enfranchise minority and otherwise underresourced voters.
Resistance to reforms like these, on both the university and the governmental level, is evidence of complacency. Institutions with ample power and prestige should not be perennially underperforming when it comes to civic engagement. The Ivy League’s shortcomings are symptomatic of a larger failure. A great deal is expected from us as students and as leaders, but, somehow, our abysmal voter engagement is acceptable. Every barrier left in place and every new one constructed, every election in which we tolerate such staggering disengagement, is proof that we are losing the spirit of the 26th Amendment.
Our universities can, and should, expect more from us. The country can, and should, expect more from our generation.
The 26th Amendment carries responsibility for all of us. Our responsibility, as those enfranchised by the amendment, is to take every opportunity to vote. The responsibility of our society—the promise implicit in the effort it took to amend the Constitution—is to stop arbitrary and capricious policies from interfering with the right, and the duty, to vote.