The 2020 presidential election happened amid extraordinary levels of voter turnout. According to the Census Bureau, 66.8 percent of eligible adults cast ballots in the race, the highest rate since 1992. Other estimates suggest that last year’s turnout rate bested the 1992 level, and may be the highest since 1900.Check out the complete 2021 Washington Monthly rankings here.
As usual, rates correlated heavily with age. But for the first time since the U.S. let 18-year-olds vote, more than half of all 18- to 24-year-olds cast ballots. The 51.4 percent of young people who voted blows the 2016 mark—39.4 percent—out of the water. In fact, the increase in youth voting is one of the most striking shifts among any demographic. Turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds grew by more than double the overall increase from 2016: 12 percentage points versus 5.4 points.
The surge in youth voting stemmed, in part, from how charged the election was. Donald Trump is a mobilization machine, and his polarizing presence atop the ticket turned out millions of progressives and conservatives who might have otherwise stayed home. But part of why youth turnout shot up is thanks to the deliberate work of student voting organizers, who mobilized young Americans to register and cast ballots despite the pandemic and restrictive voting laws. This includes national groups like the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, which helps schools develop registration and turnout plans. It also includes smaller, local organizations. Special credit goes to the many on-campus, student-led groups that worked to get their peers to the polls.
But student organizers have the best chance of success when they are actively supported by their administrations. That’s why each year at the Monthly, we release an honor roll listing the colleges doing the most to turn their students into citizens. To make the honor roll, schools must meet multiple criteria. For this year’s iteration, they had to submit action plans to ALL IN for 2018 and 2020. Schools needed to have signed up to receive data from the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE), which calculates college-specific registration and voting rates. (Information for 2020 is not yet available.) And they must have made both their 2016 and 2018 NSLVE data available to the public. In short, schools need to have shown a repeated commitment to increasing student voting—and have been transparent about the results.
Like youth voting rates overall, our honor roll grew. This year, a total of 205 schools made the list, 47 more institutions than in 2020. What didn’t change is the eclectic nature of the honored campuses. There are plenty of elite schools on the list, such as Northwestern University. But, as was true last year, plenty of famous colleges missed out. The majority of honorees are public institutions, including many community colleges.
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, we ordered 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 15 schools are also specially demarcated for topping 85 percent.
It is wonderful to see that both our honor roll and youth voting grew. But that doesn’t mean colleges or activists can rest on their laurels. There are more than 1,000 schools that don’t make the cut. Youth turnout rates continue to sit far below the rate for older Americans. It is unclear if Generation Z will turn out in force in 2022 or 2024, especially if Trump doesn’t challenge Biden. And GOP-controlled states are already at work passing new, even more burdensome restrictions to the franchise. Maintaining last year’s youth voting rates will be a battle. Increasing turnout further will be a war.
But it’s one that we’re prepared to wage at the Monthly. We have faith that activists will continue to fight as well. Many of today’s leading political issues—especially the devastation wrought by climate change—are of particular importance to younger generations. It is imperative that colleges do everything they can to get their students to vote.