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Will 2020’s dramatic surge in student voting carry over to midterms?

Nov. 1, 2022 Updated Tue., Nov. 1, 2022 at 2:30 p.m.

The pedestrian bridge over College Avenue is crowded with students as they head toward the SDSU campus during the official first day of fall 2022 classes at San Diego State University in San Diego on Aug. 22, 2022.    (Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)
The pedestrian bridge over College Avenue is crowded with students as they head toward the SDSU campus during the official first day of fall 2022 classes at San Diego State University in San Diego on Aug. 22, 2022.   (Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)
By John Wilkens The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — The voting rate of young people in their late teens and early 20s has long been the lowest of any age group, and the 2020 presidential election was no exception.

But that was only part of the story.

Turnout jumped to 66 percent among college students nationwide, just below the 67 percent registered by voters overall, according to tracking by the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University.

That was an increase of 14 percentage points from 2016, more than double the hike experienced by all voters in the election.

“That students, often younger and first-time voters, turned out at rates commensurate with the general public is nothing short of stunning,” the institute said in a report about the election.

Those results continued a trend that’s been going on for almost a decade. Colleges are paying more attention to voting rates as a measure of civic engagement — a sign that they are fulfilling their mission to help create an informed citizenry.

Campuses in San Diego are part of the effort.

“Sometimes students feel like voting won’t matter, so we try to tell them that it does,” said Catherine Mansour, 20, a junior at the University of San Diego who helps run a non-partisan campaign there called USD Votes.

“Even if they think one opinion isn’t super powerful, they are part of a demographic that doesn’t get heard from enough,” she said. “If they want their concerns taken into consideration, they have to vote.”

Now another election looms, midterms that typically attract fewer voters. Will young people continue to participate?

“I think it will be higher than it was in 2018,” when 40 percent of students voted in the midterms, said Nancy Thomas, director of the institute at Tufts. “It would be great if they turned out in numbers similar to the 2020 general election, but I don’t want to be unrealistic.”

The institute started in 2013 and now has a database of some 11 million de-identified student records that have been combined with publicly available voting records to compile a picture of what’s happening on campuses.

More than 1,200 colleges participate and in return get detailed reports about how many of their students are showing up at ballot boxes.

Thomas said the project sprang from a concern that colleges weren’t doing enough to fulfill their civic mission, and that the efforts they were pursuing — encouraging students to volunteer, for example, or holding dialogues about cultural or racial differences — weren’t objectively measurable.

In the beginning, it was hard to convince schools to sign up, Thomas said, because they didn’t want to be seen as political. Once they joined, it was hard to get them to believe the voter-turnout numbers that came back.

She remembered one college administrator telling her, “These numbers are so low, they couldn’t possibly be accurate.”

Clearing hurdles

Eight years ago, USD, which has about 8,800 students, got its first report: 16 percent of the students had voted in the most recent election.

“We thought we could do better than that,” said Casey Dominguez, a political science professor there.

That’s how the seeds for USD Votes got planted, and in 2020 they bore fruit. The university’s voting rate (its percentage of eligible students who vote) was 76.3 percent, up 21.4 points from 2016 and 10 percentage points higher than what their counterparts did on campuses nationwide.

Dominguez said widespread interest in the Joe Biden versus Donald Trump presidential election helped, as did the pandemic, which kept USD students off campus and for the most part back at home. That eliminated one of the major hurdles students face when trying to vote at school: Do they re-register in San Diego County, or do they get an absentee ballot?

Clearing hurdles are a big part of what the campaign does, according to Iesha Brown, 20, a junior who is president of USD Votes.

“We help the students navigate their options,” Brown said. USD has a website that explains step-by-step what to to.

Brown came to USD from Oregon and decided for the midterms to vote there, not in San Diego. “I feel like I know more about what’s going on in my home county than I do about the issues here,” she said.

Other obstacles include students who fear they aren’t knowledgeable enough to cast ballots and others who believe that if they do vote, it won’t make a difference.

USD Votes is coordinated by a committee that includes faculty and administrators, but students do most of the heavy lifting. They run the Instagram page, host weekly meetings, go into classrooms to give short talks.

A peer-to-peer approach seems to work best, organizers said.

“It comes across as more genuine because we are going through the same thing they are,” said Mansour, the group’s vice president. “The message can feel less intimidating.”

One of the reasons for the increase in turnout, at USD and elsewhere, has come through closing the gap between students who register to vote and students who take the next step and cast ballots.

Registration nationwide has been at about 75 percent of eligible students for a long time, Thomas said, because that’s where a lot of the get-out-the-vote attention and money have gone.

But, for a variety of reasons, significant numbers of those registered students then fail to vote. They get too busy, or they don’t know where to vote, or they lose interest.

In 2016, the registration rate at USD was 79.8 percent. Of those, 68.8 percent voted. In the 2018 midterms, both numbers dipped. Then, in 2020: 87.2 percent registered, and 87.5 percent of those voted.

Storm clouds

Last week, the Harvard Youth Poll — a twice-annual national survey of 18- to 29-year-olds — found that interest in elections remains high. Forty percent said they “definitely” will vote on Nov. 8, which is on track to match or potentially top the record-setting 2018 midterm turnout among young people.

But an earlier Youth Poll, in April, found some storm clouds.

The percentage of those agreeing that “political involvement rarely has any tangible results” rose from 22 percent in 2018 to 36 percent in 2022.

Those who agree that “I don’t believe my vote will make a real difference” increased from 31 percent in 2018 to 42 percent in 2022.

And those who feel that “politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges our country is facing” went from 45 percent in 2018 to 56 percent in 2022.

“I’m pretty anxious about the way things are,” said Joshua Rawson, 23, a senior at San Diego State University and head of the College Republicans on campus. “Both sides seem pretty hard-set in their ideologies. There are issues and policies where they can probably come to a compromise, but I don’t know if they can do it in the current climate.”

At USD, Brown said she’s hopeful about the future. “Throughout our history, people have had to fight to make voting accessible to everyone,” she said. “It seems like people are constantly finding ways to undermine that. But I think we will prevail through all of the challenges. And voting is an important part of it.”

But not the only part, according to Thomas, the institute director at Tufts.

“A strong, robust democracy — that’s the end goal,” she said.

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