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Campus vote undone by virus could tip balance in close election

UPDATED: Sun., Nov. 1, 2020

By Andre Tartar and Gregory Korte Bloomberg News

Closed college campuses, a decline in enrollment, and obstacles for first-time voters could depress the student-age vote in Tuesday’s election, possibly depriving Democrat Joe Biden of votes from shuttered college towns in battleground states.

That’s despite more young voters casting ballots early than ever before, with enthusiasm rivaling the 2008 election that put Barack Obama in the White House.

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted voting for millions of Americans, as states have shifted to mail-in and early voting to accommodate fears of contagion. Already, more than 80 million ballots have been cast, with indications of more first-time voters under 30 compared to 2016. The situation is less rosy for one subset of that group: the millions of students displaced from campus settings that drive turnout.

“Most research seems to indicate that voting is contagious,” said Hillary Shulman, who studies political communication on campus at the Ohio State University. “The influence of students on other students’ voting is certainly a force. If we’re totally diluting that force because all the students aren’t there, that’s going to have an impact.”

More than half of college students are enrolled in schools that are holding classes primarily online, according to a Davidson College analysis of national enrollment. And a new study of college voting by researchers at Tufts University in Massachusetts shows that students registered from a distant address – such as a parent’s home – are about 20% less likely to vote than they would if they registered nearer to campus, where peer pressure and get-out-the-vote efforts are more effective.

“There’s no doubt it’s big enough to swing some elections,” said Nancy Thomas, who directs the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts’ Tisch School of Civic Life.

Add to that the hurdles faced by some first-time voters in registering, requesting and returning mail-in ballots. Even as a virus-fueled surge in ballot requests translates into large numbers of young voters casting early, those under the age of 24 remain one of the least-likely age groups to return their mail-in ballots, according to the U.S. Elections Project.

Biden leads President Donald Trump 70% to 30% among undergraduate students, according to a Knight Foundation poll.

Trump’s tiny margins of victory in three states in 2016 underscore how decisive the college vote could be. The estimated number of out-of-state college students in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin is more than twice the number of votes that put Trump over the top in 2016 with victories in those states. Biden is now ahead in all three of the “Blue Wall” states, with his 3.6-point lead in Pennsylvania in the RealClearPolitics average the closest of the three.

And in New Hampshire, the estimated number of out-of-state students is more than 30 times the number of votes by which Hillary Clinton won that state. Biden now leads there by 11 points.

Turnout in the 2018 midterms had been encouraging, with more than 40% of eligible college students voting compared to 19% four years earlier. Trump’s polarizing presidency and a new wave of activism emerging from the Black Lives Matter movement could push student turnout higher, Thomas said, yet coronavirus remains a wild-card.

Alongside the Tufts and Davidson data, Bloomberg News looked at other factors – like the share of out-of-state students and the relative ease of voting – to gauge how college turnout in different states could be affected by Covid-related disruptions.

Taken together, the data reveal a risk of depressed student turnout in about two-thirds of states, compared to what it might be without the coronavirus. As more colleges switched to online learning, more of their students were likely to leave the state – and possibly take their votes with them.

Meanwhile, five states have a greater potential of a turnout boost as students return to their pre-college homes.

Arizona was one of few states where students were more likely to vote from home than near campus in 2016. With a majority of its colleges closed to in-person classes, even more of its out-of-state students could be voting from their home states. Biden and Trump are tied in Arizona in the RealClearPolitics average; Trump won the state in 2016.

And states where more young people go to college in other states, like Minnesota, could see an increase in voters as out-of-state students return home. Biden leads there by 4.7 points.

Campus organizers have had to adapt, and that means going digital. “I can’t imagine what we would do if this was 20 years ago,” said Matt Nowling, a senior at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, and the president of the College Democrats of Ohio.

Zoom calls and social media are replacing tried-and-true turnout gimmicks like free donuts and team mascots, and many students seem to be adapting.

“If the resiliency of these students in all other aspects of their Covid-19 lives is any indication, I wouldn’t count out a surge in the youth vote in spite of the challenges,” said Christopher Marsicano, founding director of Davidson’s College Crisis Initiative.

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