To cast their vote in last Tuesday’s midterm elections, students at the University of Michigan waited until six o’clock in hundreds of lines outside campus polling stations.
As the sun set over Ann Arbor, the temperature dropped, but student voters remained in line. Wrapped in blankets distributed by the Washtenaw County Democratic Party, sipped hot coffee provided by the state’s elected representative and bided their time. The final voice—from a graduate student studying microbiology—was cast around 2:00 am
Clarissa Unger, co-founder and director of the Students Learn Students Vote Coalition, a nonprofit group dedicated to increasing student voter turnout, said Michigan wasn’t the only campus where crowds of determined student voters waited until early Wednesday morning.
“Unsurprisingly, it was in polling places across the country, and especially in the battleground states,” she said.
Preliminary turnout data suggest college students were part of a significant wave of young voters who cast ballots this cycle, with 27 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds casting ballots last week in the midterm elections the report from Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE.
This is the second-highest mid-term youth turnout in three decades, and while the total fell a few points below 2018 levels, young voters still made up about the same percentage of the electorate this year: 12 percent, compared to 13 percent in 2018. And in nine key battleground states — including Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania — CIRCLE estimates the combined turnout among young voters was even higher, at about 31 percent.
“Young people have made it very clear that they are here to remain an electorate regardless of who is on the ballot,” said Kay Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of CIRCLE.
Exit polls don’t ask voters whether they attend post-secondary institutions, so the numbers of students who voted won’t be available until 2023, when the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education (IDHE), also at Tufts, publishes its report. based on matching voting records and registration data. But college students typically have much higher voting rates than the broader youth bloc, with 40 percent of college students voting in the 2018 midterm elections, compared to 28 percent of youth overall. according to the latest IDHE report.
“Part of that is because of the atmosphere on campus, where people are discussing and learning about political issues, and there’s a lot of activism,” said IDHE Director Nancy Thomas. “More discussion and engagement creates more interest in voting, and I think that’s shown in this election.”
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As the election results loomed last week, they beat predictions of a red wave. pollsters and political media. Democrats have held onto the Senate, and Republicans are likely to hold onto the House the narrowest since 1933. Younger voters appear to have had something to do with the unexpected results, with 63 percent of those aged 18 to 29 voting last Tuesday, according to CIRCLE.
Santiago Mayer, a senior at California State University Long Beach, is the founder of Voters of Tomorrow, a student-run youth voter organization. He said that while young voters were by no means a “wall of blue,” he described Gen Z as more of a “lavender mist,” citing Popular song Taylor Swift— he found that students were more receptive to calls from Democrats because they followed through on political promises like climate change legislation and student debt relief.
“There’s a kind of culture of frustration because the system has never worked for us,” said Mayer, who was 17 when he started VoT. “But our theory of change has always been that if you reach out to young people and help us, we will come out and vote for you … This election has confirmed that theory.”
Kawashima-Ginsberg said youth voter trends over the past decade also point to greater youth investment in electoral politics.
“Ten years ago, I think young people didn’t vote because they didn’t think it made a difference,” she said. “I think this generation really believes in the power of government and politics to change systems and improve lives.”
This devotion extends beyond the people who vote; college students are increasingly involved in mobilization their peers too, and on Tuesday we saw many initiatives from student-led voter turnout groups. Mayer said tomorrow’s voters sent buses to Texas A&M University after the state closed the campus polling station and delivered ponchos to the University of California, Irvine, when rare rainfall in Southern California threatened to disperse lines of student voters.
Sophia Shapiro, a University of Pittsburgh student and daughter of Pennsylvania Governor-elect Josh Shapiro, saw value in her father’s early-stage student vote mobilization company.
“I worked with Students for Biden in 2020 and saw how it really motivated my campus,” she said. “So when my dad started his company, I sat him down and said, ‘Dad, I want to do Students for Shapiro.'”
Students for Shapiro has helped mobilize nearly 1,000 student volunteers at 50 campus chapters throughout the Keystone State. Those volunteers, she said, have knocked on the doors of more than 44,000 students in the dorms and off campus. They also reached more than 400,000 students via text message and engaged in a digital campaign that included campaign messages via Twitter, TikTok and — for the first time in a gubernatorial campaign — the popular BeReal app.
The campaign paid off: According to a CIRCLE report, 26 percent more young people voted for Shapiro than for his Republican opponent, Doug Mastriano, in a state where voters were between the ages of 18 and 29. predicted to have an extraordinary impact.
“There are a lot of issues, especially after the Dobbs decision, that affect us very directly and that really fire up young voters,” Shapiro said. “When those messages come from your peers and you meet them where they are, they’re much more likely to engage and take action.”
Infusion of ballots despite unique barriers
Thomas praised the high voter turnout that led to long lines at campuses like the University of Michigan, but noted that waiting for hours in the cold can be a major deterrent — and it’s not the only thing student voters face, she added .
“Students — especially minority students — face barriers that other groups don’t,” Thomas said. “That means they have to be especially engaged.”
Thomas was particularly concerned about the added difficulty of voting by mail, as the 2020 election has spurred a number of Republican-led state initiatives to complicate the ID verification process or limit the right to vote by mail. Easier voting by mail likely led to the write-in, at least in part Student turnout was 66 percent in 2020, Thomas said, given that students often register to vote in their home county and state, which may differ from their campus.
“Convenience is really important for all Americans, but especially for college students,” she said. “To take that away seems to me to be deliberately oppressive.”
It can be difficult for students voting in person to know which local polling station belongs to them, Unger said, since one dorm’s precinct can be completely different from another. This is one of the reasons the SLSV coalition is pushing for more early voting on campuses.
“If you go to vote on election day, the precincts are smaller,” she said. “Early voting sites usually serve voters in a district, so it makes it a lot easier and more accessible.”
“It’s hard not to attribute some of the decline [in youth turnout between 2018 and 2022] to those barriers,” Mayer said. “At the same time, I believe that young organizers and activists were really creatively looking for different ways to overcome them.”
More institutions promote civic engagement
Thomas said that colleges and universities can play a significant role in helping students overcome these barriers, and that they have been increasingly committed to doing so since 2016.
The data supports this. According to A the report from the Student Vote Research Network, 528 colleges and universities submitted action plans to engage students in voting in 2022, up two from 2020 and nearly double from 2018. (This paragraph has been updated to correct the source of the report.)
“Participation in elections is something that colleges are playing an increasing role in for students,” Unger said. “The campuses are unique in that they have the ability to reach the entire population, and recently they’ve started to really use those systems and processes to reach every student in their community in a way that I don’t think other local institutions are aware of. outside.”
Thomas said institutional involvement is key to providing information resources — how and where to vote, what to bring, etc. — and for using peer pressure as an effective tool for mobilization.
“On campus, even more than most other places, voting is a very social act, and it helps a lot when an institution engages students in that way,” Thomas said. “At the end of the day, it all comes down to what kind of campus culture is created. The point is that it’s in the water.”