Groups try to woo col­lege stu­dents to the polls

His­tor­i­cally low youth turnout has room to grow

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WASH­ING­TON – At Yale and Har­vard, stu­dents are bat­tling over which univer­sity can get the most pledges to vote in next month’s midterms.

And down south, at Morehouse Col­lege in At­lanta, the Na­tional Ur­ban League set up a booth at Sat­ur­day’s home­com­ing game to urge stu­dents to vote.

On cam­puses across the coun­try, stu­dent groups and civic en­gage­ment or­ga­ni­za­tions have ramped up ef­forts to boost voter turnout Nov. 6.

The groups have not only ex­panded those ef­forts to more cam­puses but also adopted more creative tac­tics to woo younger vot­ers. There are “Party at the Poll” events, on­line pledge chal­lenges, tail­gat­ing gath­er­ings and so­cial me­dia cam­paigns.

“The ef­forts are be­com­ing more wide­spread, and I think they’re also un­abashedly tar­get­ing cam­puses,” said Nancy Thomas, di­rec­tor of Tuft Univer­sity’s Cen­ter for Civic En­gage­ment and Democ­racy. “What has changed, too, is the enor­mous amount of ac­tivism since the 2016 elec­tion, lit­er­ally start­ing the day af­ter the elec­tion.”

Ex­perts say col­lege cam­puses have long been tar­gets for can­di­dates and ad­vo­cacy groups look­ing to en­er­gize young vot­ers. His­tor­i­cally, col­lege stu­dents have been an un­re­li­able vot­ing bloc; only 20 per­cent of reg­is­tered vot­ers ages 18-29 voted in the 2014 midterms.

Thomas said sev­eral fac­tors are com­ing to­gether to cre­ate a “per­fect pos­i­tive storm” for in­creased col­lege voter turnout this elec­tion.

She said polls and univer­sity stud­ies have found that “young peo­ple are more vo­cal about pol­icy mat­ters than they have been in the past.”

And she said stu­dents’ in­creased in­ter­est in elec­tion is­sues is co­in­cid­ing with a “burst of en­ergy” from groups launch­ing na­tional get-out-the-vote cam­paigns.

One ef­fort was in full swing last week at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity. Be­tween classes, some stu­dents headed over to a gi­ant mail­box in the cen­ter of a plaza – “Party at the Mail­box – to drop off their ab­sen­tee bal­lots. Or­ga­niz­ers pro­vided stu­dents with stamps and en­velopes.

“Our re­search shows that a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of GW stu­dents vote by mail, so we wanted to cater to the needs of GW stu­dents by pro­vid­ing this spe­cific pro­gram­ming,” said Spencer Dixon, a grad­u­ate stu­dent.

Vote To­gether, which worked with the GW group, also plans to host other events across the coun­try aimed at young vot­ers, in­clud­ing 100 on col­lege cam­puses.

“There’s a lot of re­search that shows if you vote young, you be­come a con­tin­ual voter,” said Angie Jean-Marie, di­rec­tor of the non­par­ti­san group. “So if we can get young peo­ple un­der­stand­ing that their voices mat­ter at this time, at this age … you are set­ting up folks for years, if not decades, of long-term vot­ing.”

The goal, Jean-Marie said, is to make the events cel­e­bra­tions. There are block par­ties, Hal­loween-themed events, pup­pies at the polls and even pig roasts.

“We cel­e­brate Fourth of July; we cel­e­brate Memo­rial Day,” she said. “We cel­e­brate on La­bor Day. And yet we don’t cel­e­brate on Elec­tion Day.”

The Na­tional Ur­ban League hopes to reach thou­sands ex­pected at the Morehouse game against Ge­or­gia’s Fort Val­ley State.

Marc Mo­rial, the league’s pres­i­dent, said Ge­or­gia and Florida are “fer­tile” states for at­tract­ing young vot­ers.

Mo­rial said in­ter­est among young peo­ple seems to be on the rise in races where his­tory could be made. Demo­crat Stacey Abrams would be­come the first African-Amer­i­can fe­male gov­er­nor in the United States if she wins. An­drew Gil­lum, also a Demo­crat, would be Florida’s first African-Amer­i­can gov­er­nor.

“I’m con­fi­dent that in both of those places, young voter turnout and African-Amer­i­can voter turnout is go­ing to be higher than it was in pre­vi­ous midterms,” Mo­rial said.

For many col­lege stu­dents, the midterms will be the first time they vote. And for those who go out of state for school, it may be hard to nav­i­gate un­fa­mil­iar vot­ing laws.

Those fac­tors can be an “enor­mous ob­sta­cle,” Thomas said. For col­lege stu­dents, con­ve­nience is im­por­tant.

To ad­dress con­cerns, GW Votes, a non­par­ti­san coali­tion of stu­dents, fac­ulty and staff, has set up com­puter sta­tions where stu­dents can reg­is­ter and get in­for­ma­tion about state re­quire­ments. Dixon said ef­forts like this can bring down some of the le­gal bar­ri­ers to vot­ing, as well as some of the “per­ceived bar­ri­ers around voter ed­u­ca­tion.”

“Th­ese are chal­lenges that are not in­sur­mount­able,” he said.

An­other chal­lenge is mo­ti­va­tion. A re­cent poll from the Pub­lic Re­li­gion Re­search In­sti­tute/The At­lantic found young vot­ers are more likely to be­lieve their vote doesn’t mat­ter. Only 50 per­cent of vot­ers ages 18-29 agreed vot­ing is the “most ef­fec­tive way to cre­ate change,” com­pared to 78 per­cent of vot­ers ages 65 and up.

“If stu­dents are not mo­ti­vated to vote, then they aren’t go­ing to go the ex­tra mile to break down those bar­ri­ers,” Thomas said.

GW stu­dent Miles Kelekian, 19, said he’s heard sim­i­lar sen­ti­ments from friends at home in Cal­i­for­nia.

“They’ll say, ‘Why bother vot­ing?’ ‘When there’s so many other peo­ple, does my vote re­ally mat­ter?’ ” Kelekian said. “It does. It’s your way to voice your opin­ion.”

“There’s a lot of re­search that shows if you vote young, you be­come a con­tin­ual voter.” Angie Jean-Marie Di­rec­tor of the non­par­ti­san Vote To­gether


Vot­ers ages 18 to 29 could make or break the elec­tions – if they turn out, de­fy­ing past per­for­mance, es­pe­cially in midterms.

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