Colleges Can Help Unlock the Youth Vote

Colleges Can Help Unlock the Youth Vote
AP Photo/John Locher, File

After the Trump administration rescinded its rules barring certain international students from being in the United States, academia was validated for its strong and swift action. The reversal followed a lawsuit from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which proved that colleges and universities still have significant pull in dictating public policy.

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Academia should approach voting rights with the same zeal. On most college campuses, doing your civic duty remains an uphill battle. And, as college administrators grapple with reopening in the fall, voting may become even more difficult for some students.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic erected unprecedented barriers to the polls, the embarrassingly low voting rate among college students has long been analyzed—with wide-ranging diagnoses offered. Is it voter suppression? Is it apathy? Do college students just need a political candidate who excites them? Will the coronavirus now join the list?

Pandemic or not, there is a quick fix to low voter turnout. The key to unlocking the youth vote comes down to college administrations better fostering a genuine civic conscience. Colleges and universities strive to be the beacons of thought that mold future leaders. Shouldn’t that intellectual stewardship include voting rights?

Many schools don’t allow absentee ballots to be mailed to student dorms or administrative buildings. Therefore, some students living on-campus must find an alternate address to receive their forms. This is especially pertinent when 70% of Americans may vote by mail this election cycle. Yet, surprisingly few colleges or universities provide a centralized resource, such as a website, that provides clarity on how, when, where, and for whom to vote.

Election Days are too often treated as normal class days, leaving students with a dilemma: Should you miss your seminar or wait in line to vote? Another challenge is physically getting to polling places, many of which are beyond walking distance from college campuses.

There is also a dearth of healthy civic discourse on campuses. Student orientations include time for school rules, sexual assault guidelines, and mental health information—all highly important for college-age people. But they seldom allow for equally vital civic education, including any reflection on how students can be thoughtful members of their community. Discussions of current events are generally left to individual professors with already jam-packed syllabi.

Some college administrators even express trepidation at stimulating such conversations, fearing it might be perceived as partisan and polarizing. This is a mistake: We need more political speech, not less.

Making matters worse, well-intentioned efforts by schools to boost civic engagement, class discussions, speaker invitations, and educational workshops often prove unsuccessful, since they reach an already engaged subset of students. Indeed, recent research confirms that those predisposed for engagement, such as history or government majors, vote at much higher rates than their STEM counterparts.

But why can't discrete math classes be related to current events, if such discussions have been proven to boost the voting rate? Northwestern University, where the integration of voting throughout the curriculum has allowed the school’s registration rate to triple to 97%, is the gold standard of active administration support.

Some of their peers are now catching up and making civics a facet of campus culture. For example, schools are including voting deadlines on syllabi, mandating professors to incorporate specific lecture slides on voting and canceling class on election days. In the best cases, colleges and universities engage in intra-conference challenges—most notably, the Big Ten Voting Challenge in 2018—which foster competition on civic engagement metrics (and school spirit). The question becomes: Will Ohio State beat Michigan—in voting?

Fortunately, we are making progress. According to Tufts University, more than 60% of 18- to 21-year olds with college experience say they learned about voter registration at school. Two-thirds claim that their college professors had encouraged them to vote.

So why can’t we implement reform more broadly? Why can’t we spark a revolution in youth voter turnout?

Robust youth participation in our democracy would provide a breath of fresh air, changing the paradigms on issues that matter to college students. The onus is on college administrators to step up—as they have done in the past—and create that environment for students to change the world.

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