What Will Student Voting Look Like in 2020?

A pandemic creates new obstacles to vote. Colleges should do their part to help.

Unless something extraordinary happens to bring the coronavirus under control by the first Tuesday in November, the United States will face the most challenging presidential election since 1864, when it went to the polls in the midst of the Civil War. All over the country, policymakers are struggling to figure out the logistics of how citizens can best vote without putting their lives at risk or spreading the contagion. (A mail-in ballot for everyone? Bottles of Purell by the voting machines?) Aside from the health risks, the greatest concern is (or should be) participation: citizens who are too scared to cast ballots, or confused about the procedures for doing so, are citizens whose voices won’t count.

High on the list of those we should be concerned about are college students. Young Americans are already the demographic least likely to cast ballots. A pandemic creates new obstacles. Millions of students, for example, move away from home to attend college. But as campuses shut down en masse, they had to return home, and it’s unclear when they can go back to school. The result is residency complications for many potential first-time voters, just months before an election.

While there are actions that elected officials can take between now and November to make it easier for college students to vote, such as letting everyone vote by mail, the lion’s share of the burden falls on the colleges themselves. In the best of times, most college administrators don’t give much thought to how to increase student voter participation on their campuses, or even think of it as their part of their jobs. And with plunging revenues and enrollments in chaos, now is now is not the best of times. But the truth is that if college leaders don’t act, and quickly, millions of students will be effectively disenfranchised.

At the Monthly, we have long believed that colleges are uniquely positioned to help imbue each new generation with a sense of civic responsibility and engagement. And because voting is habitual—if you vote in one election, you are more likely to vote in the next one, and then the one after that—colleges can create lifelong civic participants if they make the process of registering and casting ballots easier and more understandable for their students.

To push colleges to be more proactive and recognize those that are, the Washington Monthly three years ago began adding student voting metrics to its annual college rankings and publishing an “honor roll” of schools that scored perfectly on those measures. The pandemic makes that exercise even more important. So today, we are excited to announce our upcoming fourth student voting honor roll, recognizing the schools across America that do the best job of getting students to both register and cast ballots.

To do this, we’re relying on a combination of new and old techniques. We are beginning by again using the first-of-its-kind metric we built in 2018 to evaluate how well schools do at increasing voter participation. We measure which schools take part (and to what degree) in the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) at Tufts University, which calculates registration numbers and turnout rates for participating campuses, and in the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, which helps schools craft plans to bolster civic engagement

Colleges that meet all of the five following criteria make the honor roll. They must do so by June 1, 2020:

  • Submitted an ALL IN action plan in 2018.
  • Submit an ALL IN action plan in 2020 (due to ALL IN by May 31, 2020).
  • Be currently enrolled in NSLVE.
  • Made their 2016 NSLVE data publicly available through ALL IN’s online database.
  • Made their 2018 NSLVE data publicly available through ALL IN’s online database.

These criteria are consistent with our last honor roll. That means if past honor roll colleges have kept current with both ALL IN participation and NSLVE participation, they will make this year’s list as well. We will release the honor roll in our 2020 college guide, out this September. As was the case in 2019, any school (not just honor roll recipients) will receive a point in our general college rankings for each of the above criteria they fulfill. Colleges will receive an additional “sixth” point if they make their 2018 NSLVE report public, and it shows a registration rate above 85 percent.

But this year, we are also adding something new to the honor roll. Rather than listing schools alphabetically, we will be ranking schools by their registration rates. The school with the highest registration rate, according to their 2018 NSLVE report, will appear at the top of the list. Schools with a registration rate above 85 percent will receive special recognition, and schools with a registration rate above 95 percent will receive a special distinction. (Many colleges have students who can’t register to vote, including international students; NSLVE excludes such students in its tabulation of registration rates.)

Colleges can’t, of course, change their 2018 registration rate. But they can change their 2020 registration rate. And we will continue to track schools’ registration progress.

We know that it is hard for schools to focus on raising registration and turnout given the myriad closures and stay-at-home orders. Increasing turnout is already hard work, especially in places with restrictive voting requirements. It’s possible to reach high registration rates in unfriendly states—the University of Texas at Austin cleared 80 percent—but it requires enormous organizing efforts. Closing campuses makes it even more challenging.

Thankfully, there are multiple institutions working to assist colleges in increasing turnout. The Ask Every Student program pairs groups of colleges together and helps them craft registration plans that will, per its name, reach every student on campus. The forthcoming President’s Conference will bring college leaders together to brainstorm ways to bolster student voting. And ALL IN itself works with individual campuses to foster civic engagement. All of these initiatives are considering COVID-19 as they help schools plan.

And it’s important that schools do plan. Moments of extreme crisis open up profound political opportunities. The 2020 election will be exceptional not just in the circumstances under which it takes place, but in the outcomes it will generate. The victor will have to contend with the ongoing pandemic and its fallout, and will have great say in how the United States should change in its wake. America’s college students will have to live with those changes for longer than almost any other demographic. It is imperative that their schools find ways to help them vote.

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Daniel Block

Daniel Block is the executive editor of the Washington Monthly.