In the 2020 election, 66 percent of college students who were registered to vote cast their ballots — an increase of 14 percentage points over the 2016 presidential election. Similarly, in the 2018 midterms, college student voter turnout doubled from 19 percent in 2014 to 40 percent.
What happened? Some of the jump, of course, was because of the tremendous mobilization that happened during the President Donald Trump era overall. But some of the increase is likely due to get-out-the-vote initiatives conducted in colleges across the country. Stronger student turnout strengthens democracy and increases the likelihood that policymakers will pay attention to issues important to students, like student debt. Political science research explains how these initiatives made a difference.
Civic engagement in classrooms
At Mississippi State University, Thessalia Merivaki’s students used plug-in tools from the Ask Every Student design community and partnered with local organizations to create customized plans for reaching out to their fellow students. This included targeted plans for reaching different groups such as student-athletes and fraternities and sororities. In 2018, five teams of students registered 300 students, and learned how to improve the program. Merivaki’s 2022 journal article about this research examines how to make student voter registration drives more effective.
Tactics that work
In 2016, Elizabeth Bennion and David Nickerson wrote about how in-class voter registration presentations increase registration and turnout. In research that included 16 college campuses and more than 25,000 students, they found that presentations from fellow students or from a professor increased registration by 6 percentage points and turnout by 2.6 percentage points. Turnout also increased when students receive emails with links to online voter registration forms. Efforts led by peers are particularly effective. But faculty and administrators can also be effective messengers. Since Bennion and Nickerson’s research was published, far more campuses have adopted the tactic.
In a 2021 paper, Daniel Bergan and co-authors described sending students to make presentations to a random sample of first-year writing courses about the upcoming 2018 midterm elections, with some specifically asked to encourage their roommates to vote. Students who heard a presentation were more likely to vote if they were registered, confirming Bennion and Nickerson’s findings.
Bergan and his co-authors documented a spillover effect linked to students specifically asked to encourage their roommates to vote. In this group, roommates already registered to vote were 8 to 9 percentage points more likely to participate, although there were no measurable effects among roommates not already registered.
States that make it easy to register to vote via an online form have also increased student turnout, particularly when students get an emailed invitation to do so. In their 2021 paper describing research including 25 campuses and 130,000 students, Bennion and Nickerson report that students receiving an email with a link to an online voter registration portal are 1.2 percentage points more likely to vote and 0.5 percentage-points more likely to vote — small but powerful effects for a single email message.
Research from the 2020 election finds that campus voter registration and mobilization efforts also spillover onto family members back home. Due to the pandemic, many campuses hoping to register and mobilize students to vote had to do so digitally, and also often had to include new information about how to vote by mail. A study of 14 campuses conducted by Melissa Michelson and her colleagues found that not only did students use these new processes, but many shared the information with their family members, many of whom were also negotiating the shift to voting by mail.
Other scholars have also used online resources to increase student political knowledge and participation. In 2016, Dannagal Young and her colleagues created a digital civic engagement game. Not only did college students enjoy the game and say they’d be happy to play again, but those who played had higher levels of political engagement, attention, efficacy, knowledge, and participation.
Of course, recent elections have been hotly contested, which increases turnout. Richard Niemi and Michael Hanmer documented in a 2010 paper that students are more likely to vote in a battleground state, much as is true for all voters.
Jacob Montgomery and Min Hee Seo find students are more likely to vote if they live near their hometown, but will change their registration if they move for college and think their vote will matter more in their campus location. For example, a student moving from Alabama, which is all but certain to vote Republican, to Florida, a swing state, would be more likely to change their registration than a student moving from Alabama to Mississippi.
Minority-serving institutions (MSI) campuses, which include but are not limited to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic-Serving institutions (HSIs), have a long history of encouraging student civic engagement. A 2017 study of such campuses by Tyler Hallmark and Andrew Martinez found that establishing a campus voting location boosted student turnout.
Institutions that serve minority students have an advantage that other types of institutions may not. In a 2020 article, Frank Fernandez and his co-authors find that Latino students are more likely to vote if they attend a campus with a more diverse student body.
Federal, state, and local government context matters as well. Thessalia Merivaki and Mara Suttman-Lea find in a 2022 article that there is wide variation in compliance with federal guidelines for state voter education. California and Maryland require college campuses to develop and submit voter engagement plans. In addition, 23 cities and states are working with student vote advocacy organizations to increase student registration and turnout. These variations contribute to differences in student turnout across the country.
Voting is habit-forming, so getting students started early can create a more engaged electorate for years.
An earlier version of the figure in this post gave the incorrect figure for student turnout in 2014. We regret the error.