For decades, students have been among America’s least faithful voters. In 2014, only 20 percent of eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds cast ballots—a record low, and well below that year’s already abysmal national turnout rate of 37 percent. The youth turnout rate in 2016 was 46 percent, much higher than during the midterms, but still 15 percent less than the overall rate and 24 percent less than turnout among people over seventy. It’s therefore little wonder that both parties prioritize the issues facing older Americans over the problems facing younger ones.
But if the most recent elections are any indication, that is changing. More than 35 percent of people aged eighteen to twenty-nine voted in 2018—the highest midterm turnout by young Americans ever recorded. This demographic voted overwhelmingly for Democrats, helping propel the party’s many House and gubernatorial victories. Democratic presidential aspirants are now foregrounding plans that would make college more affordable and ease, or even erase, the $1.5 trillion in student debt now held by Americans.
The Washington Monthly believes that colleges have a responsibility to inspire students to be active citizens. That’s why our rankings have long rewarded schools whose students give back to the country by participating in the military, the Peace Corps, and other forms of national service. Last year, in the lead-up to the midterms, we added another, first-of-its-kind set of metrics: how well colleges encourage their students to vote. We repeated that exercise in this year’s rankings.
These top performers may surprise you. While a few are big-name private colleges, like George Washington University and Brown University, the vast majority are public institutions, many of them lesser-known schools like Michigan’s Ferris State University and the University of Minnesota Duluth. Indeed, some of America’s most famous schools, like the California Institute of Technology and Carleton College, earned the lowest possible score (zero) on our college voting metrics.
It doesn’t take universities all that much effort to boost student voting. Students themselves will do most of the work if given half a chance, even in the face of efforts by some politicians to suppress their votes, as I explore in in this issue. And because voting tends to be habitual—if you vote in this election, you’re far more likely to vote in the next one, and the ones after that—colleges and universities have an opportunity to boost democratic participation not only in 2020 but for years, or even decades, to come. We hope the example set by the institutions on our honor roll will inspire more schools to get into the democracy-building game.