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How to get more college students to vote

- September 18, 2018
(Jim Young/Reuters)

For months, signs have pointed to Democratic gains in the November midterm elections. But those gains also will depend on turning out Democratic voters. Among the challenges Democrats face: getting young voters to the polls.

Younger voters lean toward the Democratic Party, on average, but their turnout typically drops in midterm elections more than that of older groups. For example, between 2012 and 2014, turnout among those 60 and older fell 16 points. But turnout among those from ages 18 to 29 fell 25 points. In 2014, 16 percent of these youngest voters reported voting.

What, if anything, might make this year different? Is it even possible to get young people to vote? Here are four lessons from political science research.

Classroom registration works

Forty percent of 18-to-24-year-olds in the United States are enrolled in college, and turnout is even lower for non-college youth. But college students are often easier to target and mobilize because they live in densely packed campuses.

Thus, college campuses are often the site of registration drives. The classroom itself is an effective voter-registration site. In one 2016 study of 16 campuses, 22,256 students in 1,026 classrooms were randomly assigned to hear a 10-minute voter registration presentation by a professor or peer, which included walking students through the registration process and collecting completed registration forms.

Just this short presentation — whether given by a faculty member or a fellow student — increased registration by 6 percentage points and upped voter turnout by almost 3 percentage points. In other words, for every 10,000 students who heard the classroom presentations, 600 more registered and 260 more voted than would have otherwise.

Email registration drives can also work — depending on how they’re done

Can voters be registered and mobilized outside the classroom? Several studies have examined whether email messages can motivate students to register to vote.

Here’s a strategy that did not work: Having campus leaders email students a downloadable, printable registration form. A 2006 study involving 250,000 college students on 25 campuses found that this did not increase registration or turnout.

This is consistent with the results of a five-campus email experiment conducted by Vote for Students in 2002. Neither the group’s encouragement to register (with a link to the printable registration form) nor the group’s follow-up emails encouraging students to vote effectively boosted registration or turnout rates.

But here’s what did work, a subsequent study found: emails that included a direct link to that state’s online voter registration system. Linking students to a system that allows them to register entirely online increased registration rates by 1.2 percentage points among students never registered to vote before. And 58 percent of those who registered online voted. The increased turnout meant that 7 more people voted for every 1,000 students who received an email link to the state online registration portal.

Social media and text messages can work, if they’re personal

Of course, young people use many other media as often or more often than email. But these media by themselves don’t increase turnout. In particular, impersonal messages delivered via social media — in sidebar or banner ads, or “I voted” widgets — don’t increase turnout.

The messages have to be more personal. For example, showing Facebook users photos of specific friends who had voted increased turnout in the 2010 election by 0.4 percent.

Similarly, social media outreach among friends can work. One study tested the effect of a series of Facebook status updates shared by a graduate student who friended hundreds of undergraduates. During the two weeks before the 2010 election in Georgia, she sent them a variety of election-related messages, including reminders about when to vote and establishing a norm of participation. Exposure to those messages increased turnout by more than 10 percentage points among students younger than 30. A study conducted in Brazil using WhatsApp videos from candidates also increased youth turnout.

Texting can also work, although the effects tend to be small unless people have opted in to receive the reminder. Experiments conducted by NextGen Climate with young Democratic-leaning voters in 2016 and 2017 in Arizona, Illinois, and Virginia found small increases — less than one percentage point — in turnout from single text messages.

Intensive one-on-one mobilization is powerful

Northwestern University recently piloted an ambitious effort in which students have one-on-one, peer-to-peer conversations with every new student, with the aim of making sure they were registered and would vote. The university built this program into every “welcome station” on student move-in day.

As a result, 95 percent of students who were eligible registered to vote, either in the precincts around Northwestern or as absentee voters in their hometowns. Before the program, in 2012, the university’s students had a turnout rate of 49 percent; once the program was instituted in 2016, turnout jumped to 64 percent. That far exceeded the national average of 31 percent among youth — and it also exceeded the 58 percent average among all age groups. Other campuses implementing their model are finding similar success. 

To be sure, mobilizing young voters remains challenging. As with voter registration and mobilization efforts, the effects of these programs can be small — a few percentage points here or there. And given that campaigns cannot contact all voters — indeed, they typically target a subset of voters, not all of whom they can always reach — the total number of voters mobilized may not be large enough to influence an election’s outcome.

But these studies do show that young people are not always averse to voting. Some may need only a little nudge.

Read more:

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Elizabeth A. Bennion is professor of political science and campus director of the American Democracy Project at Indiana University South Bend.

Melissa R. Michelson is professor of political science at Menlo College, in Atherton, Calif.