Low voting rates among young people have been a hallmark of American elections for decades, with particularly disappointing results in midterm years — but the tides may be turning.
Voting participation among Brown students increased threefold between the 2014 and 2018 midterm elections, according to new data provided by the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement published last month. Student voter turnout jumped from 13.4 to 45.1 percent, respectively.
Student voting data
The report places the University’s 2018 student voting rate 6 percentage points above the average rate for the 1,100 colleges and universities working with NSLVE.
The report also unearthed a series of distinctive features about University students’ 2018 voting patterns. Female students had higher turnout than males: 40.6 percent versus 33.2 percent. Undergraduates turned out at a higher rate than graduate students: 40.3 percent versus 29.7 percent. Asian-identifying students had a lower turnout rate than their peers: 30.8 percent versus 34.4 percent for black students, 40.2 percent for Hispanic students and 50.5 percent for white students.
Voting rates calculated by NSLVE reflect the percentage of an institution’s students who actually voted out of all who were eligible.
But when voting rates were calculated within individual age groups, genders, race/ethnicity, fields of study, enrollment status, education level and class year, voting rates were not adjusted by removing non-resident aliens, resident aliens or undocumented students. The NSLVE simply divided the number of students who voted by the total number of students in that category, which could slightly skew the percentages for specific demographic breakdowns.
“We were so excited by the recent data that came out from the NSLVE report,” said Betsy Shimberg, assistant dean of the college and the director of student development at the Swearer Center for Public Service. “There was a huge increase in youth voting across the country — it pretty much doubled,” she added. “At Brown, it tripled!”
NSLVE was founded by Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy & Higher Education in 2013 following a “call to action” issued by the U.S. Department of Education, urging American institutions of higher education to facilitate greater student civic engagement and learning.
“I think it’s a very positive development that young people have been voting in great numbers,” said Richard Arenberg, senior fellow in International and Public Affairs at the Watson Institute. “It re-energizes the electorate.”
The University has a long tradition of politically active students, but turnout has remained low; Brown’s 2014 student voting rate of 13.4 percent stood 6.3 points behind the average of all NSLVE institutions.
Citing troubling declines in civic engagement over recent decades, administrators, faculty and students alike voiced a sense of encouragement from the new NSLVE data. “It’s something to build on,” Arenberg said.
Zoë Mermelstein ’21, president of the Brown College Democrats, pointed to the current political climate, coupled with University supported initiatives like TurboVote, as driving forces behind increased student turnout.
“It is a crazy time politically,” Mermelstein said. “And the efforts on campus have been really effective in making sure people are not only registered, but also engaging in the process of voting.”
Young people tend to lean leftward on the political spectrum. According to a 2016 Pew Research Center poll, 58 percent of 18-to-25-year-olds either identify as Democrat or lean toward the Democratic Party, versus 36 percent who identify as Republican or lean toward the Republican Party.
On Brown’s campus, the difference is more pronounced. A 2016 campus poll conducted by The Herald found that, when asked what political party they were most likely to identify with, 62.8 percent of respondents considered themselves Democrat, while only 5 percent considered themselves Republican.
On-campus efforts to increase turnout
Because the Swearer Center knows that approximately 85 percent of students arrive on College Hill already registered to vote, the Center is specifically focused on increasing student voter turnout, Shimberg said.
As part of this ongoing effort, the Center is funding a partnership with TurboVote, an online service that allows easy registration and absentee ballot requests and provides election reminders through text alerts.
Voting can be a confusing process, and students who are voting out-of-state can have difficulties getting their ballot counted. Shimberg hopes that the Swearer Center’s efforts will demystify absentee voting, streamlining an often convoluted process which has served to “disenfranchise young people from voting” in the past.
The Swearer Center, in partnership with numerous student groups, has staffed registration stations at campus-wide fairs and events, including a push during orientation this year which saw about 220 new students register to vote, Shimberg said. Efforts to bolster student turnout come as the nation braces for a high-stakes 2020 presidential election.
University staff working to increase turnout stressed that their efforts are focused on improving civic engagement and are not tied to any one political party or election.
“Young people are realizing that they have power, and they’re using their power and they’re using their voice,” Shimberg said. “At the Swearer Center, we’re trying to facilitate that.”
A significant percentage of Brown students are either international students or undocumented students and so are ineligible to vote in the United States. “I do not want to be excluding them from the conversation,” Shimberg said. “We have to go beyond the ballot, to get to a place where people are engaging with each other, people are having thought provoking conversations around issues, candidates and policies that affect us all.”
Mermelstein stressed that civic engagement should go beyond the confines of College Hill and emphasized the importance of the University using its institutional power to support grassroots voter education projects in the broader Providence area.
She outlined the formation of a Voter Education Team, a group of student volunteers within the Brown Dems who are trained in voter eduction.
“Our model is mostly focusing on providing volunteers to existing initiatives in the community that really need the bodies,” Mermelstein said.
“We want to train students for after college,” she said, adding, “We want to make sure we are providing training so that students can go out and make an impact in voter education in their communities.”
Debate on campus
Julian Haag ’20, president of the Brown College Republicans, similarly praised the boosted turnout, championing civic engagement irrespective of political affiliation. Haag stressed that he hopes increased student voter turnout will be mirrored by an increasing fervor for political debate on campus.
“Political polarization is making it so difficult for conservative students to want to speak out,” Haag said of the campus atmosphere. “They don’t want to be ostracized, they don’t want to be isolated.”
“I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me quietly and said ‘I’m a Republican, but I don’t want anyone to know it,’ or ‘I’m a conservative, but I don’t want anybody to know it,’” he added.
Mermelstein similarly voiced a commitment to respectful, pluralistic debates and affirmed that she looks forward to planning another annual Brown Democrats versus Brown Republicans panel.