Groups try to woo college students to the polls
Historically low youth turnout has room to grow
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.