Palm Walk in ASU Tempe Campus
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On November 3, Americans will vote in an election unlike any other in U.S. history. As COVID-19 rages across the country, many will find themselves voting by mail for the first time. Others will wait in long lines at the fewer polling places that are open because their state government has made voting by mail difficult or impossible. If localities are imprudent about in-person voting—by having people line up indoors, for example—some will doubtlessly get sick as a result, leading to a terrible trade-off between political participation and physical health.

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For even the most seasoned voters, this will likely be a fraught and challenging process. But for America’s college students, it will be especially perplexing. Young people are, by definition, the age group least experienced with the act of voting. Not coincidentally, they are also the ones least likely to cast ballots. In 2018—a hard-fought, high-water mark for youth midterm voting—turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds was still only 35 percent, more than 10 points below the rate for 30- to 44-year-olds, 20 points below the rate for 45- to 64-year-olds, and less than half the rate of the over-65 crowd. Among college students, the rate was 40 percent—not much better.

The good news is that despite the pandemic, young people are unusually fired up about the 2020 contest. A recent poll by Harvard’s Institute of Politics shows that more 18- to 29-year-olds say they plan to vote in 2020 than said they planned to vote when asked in surveys conducted at similar times in 2016 and 2018. It’s clear that recent events, such as the mass activism against police brutality and institutionalized racism, have inspired many young people’s passions. According to a poll by Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, 27 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds have attended a march or a demonstration in their lifetimes, a more than fivefold increase from 2016. A quarter of all 18- to 24-year-olds say they have registered someone else to vote, far more than in the past. And while many people are worried that young Americans will be less likely to vote by mail than their elders, preliminary evidence suggests that’s not the case. Compared to 2016, the number of 18- to 24-year-olds who voted by mail in Florida’s 2020 presidential primary increased by 338 percent. For all other age groups, the increase was just 11 percent.

The bad news is that many young Americans are still unsure about how to vote. In the same Tufts survey, just 51 percent of respondents correctly knew whether they could register online. Seven-and-a-half percent, which translates to 3.5 million people, said they have poor access to the internet, which inhibits their ability to both register and learn about the voting process. And it is unclear if colleges will be able to keep large numbers of students on campus until November 3, meaning that even the most well-informed students may wind up registering in places they ultimately can’t cast ballots.

At the Monthly, we believe that colleges have a special obligation to help young Americans become active political citizens. It will help if they make sure students can be confident about where they will be on Election Day. But to ensure that young people capitalize on their growing enthusiasm, schools will need to do much more. They’ll need to explain how to register and what’s needed to actually cast a ballot, given both the pandemic-related election chaos and the growing maze of franchise restrictions in GOP-controlled states. In other words, they will need to help make voting as easy as possible.

There are multiple resources universities can use to pursue this end. The ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, for example, works with all kinds of colleges to develop school-specific student voting action plans. It has developed a virtual tool kit full of suggestions for how schools can use the internet to bolster registration and turnout during the pandemic, and it has created a Google group where colleges can share digital resources and ask questions. The National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) at Tufts University calculates registration numbers and turnout rates for participating campuses, allowing schools to track their progress.

To encourage schools to work at bettering turnout, the Monthly has used ALL IN and NSLVE information to compile its fifth student voting honor roll. The listed schools have met multiple criteria. They have submitted an ALL IN action plan in 2018 and 2020. They’ve signed up to receive NSLVE data about their own campus registration and turnout rates. And they’ve made both their 2016 and 2018 NSLVE data available to the public. They have, in short, shown a repeated commitment to increasing student voting and have been transparent about the results.

This year, a total of 157 schools made the list. This is 18 more schools than made the previous honor roll, released in February, and nearly twice the number that made the honor roll released last year. Much as in the past, it’s an eclectic group. Many prestigious, private four-year colleges perform well, but they are easily outnumbered by public two- and four-year institutions. Some of America’s most famous schools didn’t make the cut.

The list relies on participation in programs such as ALL IN and NSLVE because raw turnout data isn’t available for all institutions. But to reward truly standout colleges, this year we’re ordering the honor roll by voter registration rate. The top-performing school—the Maryland Institute College of Art, or MICA—receives its own distinction for having a registration rate above 95 percent. The next eight schools are also specially demarcated for topping 85 percent. Not all of these institutions performed so remarkably well in the past. MICA, for example, increased its registration rate by more than 25 points between 2014 and 2018. It’s possible for schools to quickly up their game if they work at it.

This means that administrators must incorporate registration and voting into their orientations (digital or otherwise), and faculty must make a point of discussing it in their classes. For schools struggling to figure out the best way to increase rates, the new Ask Every Student program by the National Resource Consortium on Full Student Voter Participation helps colleges devise plans to, quite literally, ask each of their students to register. 

But for school employees, much of the work really just involves empowering students. In everything from protests to registration drives, young Americans have proved that they are committed to making their voices heard in 2020. Some have already found ways to work through the voting challenges created by the pandemic. Students in California’s Students Vote Project have discussed hopping onto Zoom lectures to encourage their peers to cast ballots.

It’s not difficult to see why they’re so enthusiastic. The stakes of the upcoming election are monumental, and young people will have to live for longer than anyone else with the consequences. They want to participate. It’s imperative that colleges do everything they can to help.

Daniel Block

Daniel Block is an associate editor at Foreign Affairs and a contributing editor at The Washington Monthly. Follow him on Twitter @DBlock94