Young People Don’t Vote. Can Colleges Change That?

Student voting can tip elections. Here’s how some schools are figuring out how to get students to the polls.

On a Wednesday afternoon late last October, a thousand or so students at the University of Houston–Downtown (UHD) gathered on a campus lawn festooned with red and blue balloons, where they were joined by the school’s mascot, the Ed-U-Gator, a dancing costumed alligator. The occasion was Walk 2 Vote, a civic engagement initiative that’s part festival, part voter mobilization effort. Rhymes from Bun B, the Houston rap icon, blared from speakers as the students grabbed free food and drinks, mingling with comedians, musical guests, and politicians who worked the crowd. After Representative Sheila Jackson Lee ascended to the stage and urged students to head to the polls, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner took the microphone: “We need every single person to go out and vote and take it seriously. And it starts right here on the campus of UHD.”

Then, on cue, a sea of students, led by a mariachi band, walked ten minutes south into the heart of downtown Houston—passing a hipster cocktail bar and a dimly lit storefront advertising 24/7 bail bonds—to vote early at the county board of elections office.

The goal of Walk 2 Vote is to “make voting fun again,” said John Locke, who chaired the Walk 2 Vote committee last year. The festival itself is just one of three phases of the event. In early fall, the committee recruits students for voter deputy training. (Archaic state election law requires Texans to receive training before they can register voters.) Then, nearly every day in the student union, which looks out onto Houston’s skyline, the Walk 2 Vote committee sets up tables to register voters, putting together campaigns like “Eat 2 Pledge”: register to vote and sign a pledge to cast a ballot, get a free hot dog.

Locke, a thirty-three-year-old known around campus for his daily uniform of crisp business suit and tie, took an unlikely path to becoming a voter turnout activist. Raised by a single mother in Greenspoint, a gritty Houston neighborhood nicknamed “Gunspoint” by locals, Locke dropped out of high school during tenth grade. (He later earned a GED.) “I mixed in with the wrong type of people,” he said. “I found myself getting in trouble, suffering from drug addiction, and all that good stuff that comes with not being in the right place.” In 2011, he was convicted of felony drug possession and spent a year in jail.

The Harris County Jail happens to be about a hundred yards away from UHD. Through the slit of his cell window, Locke would peer out across the White Oak bayou and study the details of the campus. “I used to look down at students going to school,” he said as he gave me a tour on a blustery morning in early May, during finals week. He pointed out the jail, a nondescript brick fortress that looms over the college, eerily camouflaged to blend in with the surrounding utilitarian campus architecture. “And I was like, ‘I’m going to be a student here one day.’ ”

Locke—who just coincidentally shares a name with the English philosopher—was released in 2012. He was living in a homeless shelter just a block west of campus when he enrolled at UHD that summer, at the age of twenty-eight, to major in psychology. Outside the classroom, he discovered a passion for combatting homelessness in Houston, working with the local chapter of Food Not Bombs, an organization that feeds homeless people. A friend urged Locke to get involved with student government, and to join Walk 2 Vote, even though he had never voted in his life.

That friend, Ivan Sanchez, founded Walk 2 Vote in the fall of 2012 during his tenure as student body president. He conceived of it, he told me, after a course on Hispanic politics opened his eyes to the underrepresentation of Latinos in local politics in a city in which they make up 44 percent of the population. In 2012, Walk 2 Vote’s first year, nearly 400 students made the trek to vote early. In 2014, Locke was elected student body president and took over the initiative. That year, 600 walked to the polls, and in 2016, Locke’s last semester as a UHD student, the number reached around 1,000.

Clearly, Walk 2 Vote has been successful in mobilizing students to vote. Just under half of UHD students voted in 2012, and 18.6 percent cast ballots in the 2014 midterms, when voting rates tend to be lowest. At first glance, those numbers may seem hardly inspiring. But they are close to the national average for all colleges and universities—46.9 percent in 2012 and 18.8 in 2014—according to the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. That’s significantly higher than what you would expect from a commuter school that closely mirrors the demographics of Houston itself: 46 percent of students are Latino, just 17 percent are white, and half of students come from families that make less than $40,000 annually. Considering that Latino and low-income people vote at very low rates, matching the national average is impressive. While NSLVE hasn’t yet released student voting rates from 2016, students and administrators at UHD expect that with the growth of Walk 2 Vote, the university will have its highest measured turnout rate yet.

On November 8, the presidential election was decided by fewer people than showed up to watch Clemson’s football team demolish Syracuse 54–0 three days earlier. In the aftermath of an election in which just 60 percent of eligible Americans participated, get-out-the-vote efforts have taken on a new urgency. College students are a key demographic to target, since people under thirty vote at abysmally low rates: the 19.9 percent turnout among eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds in the 2014 midterms was the lowest ever recorded. (Roughly 40 percent of college students are over twenty-five.) College students are about 10 percentage points more likely to vote than young people who aren’t enrolled in college, but given that education and income are key predictors of voting, their rate of participation is still shockingly low—and a major missed opportunity for democratic participation.

Since voting habits that are formed in young adulthood tend to stick, institutions of higher education are in a unique position to tangibly mold voters for life and fortify American democracy at a moment when it’s shakier than it has ever been.

If mobilized, this bloc of upward of twenty million students—equivalent to 10 percent of all registered voters—has the capability to send shock waves throughout the political system. Glimpses of this potential surfaced in 2016. More primary voters under thirty voted for Bernie Sanders than for Clinton and Trump combined, a wave of support that carried Sanders deep into a surprisingly close contest.

But the promise of college student voting transcends the potential to influence the next election. Voting is mostly driven by habit: casting a ballot in the previous election is a stronger predictor of future voting than indicators like education and age. Since voting habits that are formed in young adulthood tend to stick, institutions of higher education are in a unique position to tangibly mold voters for life and fortify American democracy at a moment when it’s shakier than it has ever been. The University of Houston–Downtown’s Walk 2 Vote initiative is one example of how colleges can encourage students to take that first, crucial step to a life of active citizenry. The problem is, few colleges in America bother to even try.

What makes the present state of campus voting so disquieting is that colleges used to count preparing students for the civic responsibility of democracy among their most sacred duties. “If you go back to the pre-Revolutionary period, it was just remarkable how engaged some of the college students were in taking politics seriously,” said John Thelin, a historian of higher education at the University of Kentucky. “An inordinate number of college graduates were active in the Revolution and the framing of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It really came out of their undergraduate experience.”

When Thomas Jefferson enrolled at William & Mary in 1760, American higher education was an enclave reserved almost entirely for the sons of the well-to-do. As Americans pushed westward, colleges began dotting the map: by 1880, the U.S. had 800 colleges, five times as many as the entire continent of Europe. Most of these budding institutions were created to educate the clergy, teachers, and other scholarly professionals a growing nation required, and their civic mission was made clear in their founding documents. After World War II, with the GI Bill opening up colleges to the masses and America pitted in an ideological struggle against the Soviet Union, President Harry Truman formed a commission to chart the future of American higher education. Higher Education for American Democracy, the six-volume tome compiled by the Truman Commission, urged colleges to embed civics throughout classroom and campus life, not just in political science and history courses. The commission concluded that “education is the foundation of democratic liberties. Without an educated citizenry alert to preserve and extend freedom, it would not long endure.” These bracing words were followed up with virtually no action, however; having identified a great national need, the U.S. government didn’t require that colleges do anything to fill it.

Through the slit of his jail cell window, Locke could see the University of Houston–Downtown campus. “And I was like, ‘I’m going to be a student here one day.’ ”

The role of college in instilling democratic habits gained new urgency again in the 1960s, as students incensed by the Vietnam War and racial inequality began engaging in massive, occasionally violent campus protests. Members of Congress, perturbed by the unrest, decided that “what we need to do is get students out of their provost’s office and get them to vote,” said Jenny Diamond Cheng, a lecturer at Vanderbilt Law School who studies the Twenty-sixth Amendment, which lowered the voter age from twenty-one to eighteen in 1971. But the voting rate for eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds has never eclipsed its initial peak in 1972, the first election in which eighteen-year-olds could vote, in part because colleges were never asked to actively encourage their students to vote. The most Washington did was give them a nudge with a provision in the Higher Education Act of 1998 requiring universities to make a good-faith effort to distribute voter registration forms to all students. But at least as of 2004—the last time anyone checked—only 17 percent of institutions had actually complied.

Meanwhile, far from working to encourage college student voting, many Republican-controlled state legislatures are doing the opposite, crafting statutory obstacles that depress turnout among young people, who tend to lean liberal. Tennessee’s voter ID law, passed in 2011, allows administrators and faculty to vote with their university-issued IDs, but explicitly prevents students from doing the same. Four other states have similar voter ID restrictions, including Texas, where legislators in 2013 implemented a law that recognizes gun permits but not student IDs.

In the absence of any real investment in voting from American universities, it has been up to individuals like John Locke to fill the void.

What would it look like if colleges actually did foster engaged voting behavior? NSLVE is trying to figure that out. Since 2012, the organization has worked with colleges to calculate their precise student voting and registration rates by combining national voting records with enrollment data provided by a nonprofit called the National Student Clearinghouse. More than 1,000 colleges have granted NSLVE permission to analyze their enrollment records, giving researchers a database of 8.5 million student records to attempt to reverse-engineer a secret sauce for colleges to cultivate voting. Since 2012, NSLVE has identified dozens of institutions as positive outliers, meaning that their student voting rates are statistically higher than what their demographics would predict.

Nancy Thomas, who runs NSLVE out of Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy & Higher Education, believes that colleges have to focus on two facets of campus voting—logistical and motivational—to boost student turnout. “Removing the nuts-and-bolts barriers to voting should be a given: providing registration materials, tabling, finding a way for students to get to the polls,” she said, explaining the logistical components. “But then there is a whole other side, and it has to do with motivation. And I think that’s a much more complicated picture, and frankly much more important.”

At the University of Houston–Downtown, one of NSLVE’s positive outliers, Walk 2 Vote is proving successful by turning the logistical into the motivational—by making voting fun, as Locke put it. Locke and the Walk 2 Vote committee understand that building community enthusiasm around voting is more important than moralistic exhortations. “I’m not a citizen, but I can still have people sign pledge cards that they’re going to vote,” said Mustapha Nyallay, who succeeded Locke as student body president before graduating in May. “I play my part to make sure students are excited about voting. It’s all about creating that momentum.”

NSLVE has observed that at positive outlier institutions, faculty and administrators foster conditions for political participation constantly, not just during election years. Political discussions are embedded in the classroom and campus life through panels and events about political topics. And several of these colleges have mandatory first-year seminars in which students learn how to discuss and debate issues, both political and nonpolitical.

To see how another positive outlier campus is putting NSLVE’s theory to practice, in May I visited Northern Kentucky University, a public university of more than 15,000 students tucked into the hilly Kentucky suburbs of Cincinnati. Professors and administrators at NKU are proactive about creating a campus-wide consciousness about politics and civic engagement. And it seems to be working: 60.2 percent of students voted in 2012, and 27.1 percent in 2014.

The Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement is the fulcrum of efforts to create a full-time culture of political participation. The center hosts frequent small-group discussions on contentious political issues, facilitated by students and professors, called “Democracy Square LIVE!” Every week, it posts a public affairs question on a large whiteboard wall near a major thoroughfare on campus, inviting student comments. Mark Neikirk, the center’s director, said civic engagement is something “that we have to be working on all the time in a variety of ways. You don’t get 15,000 students who come to one event. You have to find them in different places and keep it up.” By seeking out partnerships with student groups and professors, Neikirk hopes to engage the broadest possible share of the student body.

During election seasons, Steven Weiss has the task of making politics seem exciting on campus. Since 2012, the communications professor has partnered with Neikirk to host interactive debate-watching parties inside the college’s “digitorium”—a lecture hall with a wall-sized high-tech video display. “Since we had such a big screen, we were able to populate it with a whole bunch of stuff,” Weiss said. “We have the feed in one screen, a Twitter feed in another screen to see everybody’s comments, and we have a third one with instant polling.” By keeping the mood light and deftly inserting humor, or attempts at it, into his list of questions—“Who has a better tie: Obama or Romney?”—Weiss tries to attract even the politically disengaged.

Ryan Salzman, a political science professor, integrates political awareness and civics into all of his classes. It’s not hard: Salzman himself is a city councilman in the small riverfront town of Bellevue, Kentucky. Salzman, who was awarded a civic education award in March from the Kentucky secretary of state’s office, said discussing his experiences as a politician helps maintain student interest in politics when national elections aren’t in the headlines. “Everyone wants to talk about the president; well, I talk about the mayor,” he told me. “Everyone wants to talk about Congress; well, let’s talk about the Kentucky General Assembly. A lot of what I seek to do in my classes is educate my students that these policies are crafted, executed, assessed, and reevaluated all within five miles of where they live and work.”

Schools like the University of Houston–Downtown and Northern Kentucky University are working to get their students excited about voting, but there’s no one incentivizing colleges themselves to invest in getting students to go to the polls. Governments and accreditation organizations are supposed to hold colleges’ feet to the fire, but there are no consequences for colleges that have lost sight of their public goal of preparing students to participate in democracy. Until that happens, the path toward increasing student voting rates will have to come from the bottom up.

Governments and accreditation organizations are supposed to hold colleges’ feet to the fire, but there are no consequences for colleges that have lost sight of their public goal of preparing students to participate in democracy.

John Locke is doing his part. Since he graduated in December, Locke has created his own nonprofit to turn Walk 2 Vote into a national movement. In 2016, Indiana University, the University of Iowa, and the University of Houston all held their own iterations of Walk 2 Vote, and Locke has ambitions of expanding the initiative to at least another twenty-five institutions by 2018.

Of course, Walk 2 Vote by itself is no panacea: for colleges with a substantial number of students voting absentee, or with no easily accessible early-voting location, it’s difficult to envision the event doing much to boost voting rates. Sandra Shapshay, an Indiana University professor who helped plan that school’s Walk 2 Vote—which featured a fall harvest theme of pumpkins and hay bales decorated with American flags—said the twenty-minute walk to the nearest early-voting location may have discouraged some students from participating.

Still, to begin to start fixing the dilemma of low voting rates, and to prove that students have the potential to participate more if given a nudge, colleges will need a lot more entrepreneurial initiatives like Walk 2 Vote—meaning a lot more entrepreneurs like John Locke.

“There is an energy that comes from students that doesn’t come from other generations,” Locke said as he walked me back to my hotel, his bald head gleaming under the unforgiving Houston sun. “When you can empower students to believe in their own potential of what they can accomplish, that’s a really life-changing experience.”

Saahil Desai

Saahil Desai is digital editor of the Washington Monthly.