No Matter the Political Climate, Unions Accommodate Surge in Student Voter Turnout

Last year as pollsters began announcing projected turnouts by demographic groups leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, the numbers were varied for voters under 30. One poll by The Atlantic magazine and the Public Religion Research Institute found that 28% of young adults were certain to vote, compared to 74% of senior citizens. While the U.S. has become more racially diverse with one-third of eligible voters non-white, the largest group of voters is also the oldest with four-in-10 voters (Gen Z is one-in-10).

Joe Cowley Student Union Early Voting CampaignAt the other end of the spectrum, the Associated Press and University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center found 56% of young voters were likely to vote; similarly, Cosmopolitan magazine and Survey Monkey had “absolutely certain” young voters at 48%.

Young voter turnout, according to the Census Bureau, hit 36% in 2018, and while below many predictions, it still represented a historic 79% jump from 2014. The United States Elections Project said the rise was more likely a 100% increase after non-
response and voter over-reporting bias was accounted for.

As discussions on campuses and around student unions about political bias have increased, along with research on the topic, so to have calls for student unions to expand as accessible, non-partisan polling places for young voters. Already practiced in hosting student government elections, a number of unions saw hours-long lines during the 2018 midterms, while others were the focus of student calls to either become polling places or to have that status renewed.

Students waited in line for nearly two hours last year at the LBJ Student Center at Texas State University to vote, even after students there and at Prairie View A&M University successfully fought for polling hours to be extended. That uptick in student voting led students from 10 different Texas universities to this year propose legislation requiring any university in the state with at least 10,000 students to have its own polling place. Currently, only seven of the 22 largest universities in Texas having polling places on campus.

Talley Student Union Early Voting Campaign

Last year students were able to conduct early voting at Talley Student Union at North Carolina State University for the first time since 2012, and student activists with the North Carolina Public Interest Research Group urged the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, which has no on-campus early voting or Election Day polling sites, to do the same. 

In Florida, where there are over 830,000 students enrolled in public institutions of higher education, a judge last year sided with students who had sued to end a ban on early voting on college campuses, and by November the student government association at the University of Central Florida worked with election officials to establish an early voting site. The school had a historic 57% voter turnout at the campus precinct where 99% of the voters are under 35, and statewide, 60,000 votes were cast in early voting on 11 campuses.

The surge in young voter activity comes at a time when many universities are recognizing claims that campuses are liberally biased, with one fallout effect being an unwillingness by states controlled by Republican governments to increase state funding for higher education. But research by a group of economists from the University of Maryland and the University of Warwick has shown that once young voters favor a party, their commitment tends to persist, no matter the party.

Talley Student Union Voting Campaign

In “The Persistence of Political Partisanship,” economics professors Ethan Kaplan and Sharun Mukand examined young voter registration trends prior to and after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and found a 2% registration uptick in the group toward the Republican party after the attacks. Those registrants also maintained that affiliation years later, including among a subgroup that lived within two miles of a four-year university, “suggesting that information availability is unlikely a factor.”

When they looked at young registrants in “highly politically competitive areas” they found no impact on party affiliation trends before or after the terrorist attacks, which was consistent with previous research that “the informed are not influenced by news.” Political scientists know that political parties see opportunity when young voters become engaged, and that those voters will likely stay within their respective party for a number of election cycles.

Pew Research Center has found that the Republican Party has increased its membership of non-college-educated whites from 50-50 four years ago to 54-37 percent over Democrats today. Pew also found that 58% of Republican and GOP-leaning independents believe colleges and universities have a “negative effect on the way things are going in the country.” Two years ago that number was 37%,

Last year Inside Higher Ed and Gallup polled 618 college and university presidents and asked about the eroding public confidence in higher education. Affordability ranked highest at 98%, 86% cited the perception of liberal bias on campuses, and 51 percent said the 2016 election exposed “that academe is disconnected from much of American society.”

University of New Mexico Voting Campaign

With that has come the rise of student-focused organizations like Students of Academic Freedom, with a goal to promote the hiring of professors with conservative views. The group’s Bill of Rights has been modeled in state legislation proposed in more than two dozen bills nationwide aimed at increasing “ideological diversity in state-supported institutions of higher learning,” according to Clemson University professors Darren L. Linvill and Pamela A. Havice.

But the presumption that conservatives are not welcome in academia was challenged when a group of sociologists from Harvard University, Northwestern University, and the University of British Columbia conducted two studies that found conservatives were less likely to seek out a Ph.D. than liberals due to a perception that academia was a liberal stronghold, and not because they suffered discriminatory hiring practices.

“The American professoriate contains a disproportionate number of people with liberal political views. Is this because of political bias or discrimination?” asked researchers Nathan Fosse, Neil Gross, and Joseph Ma. The team sent two emails to directors of graduate study in the leading American departments of sociology, political science, economics, history, and English, from fictitious students who expressed interest in doing graduate work in the department. The emails were matched in all respects except one mentioned nothing about politics (the control), while the other mentioned the student had worked on either the McCain or Obama campaigns.

They then analyzed responses in terms of frequency, timing, amount of information provided about the department, emotional warmth, and enthusiasm toward the student, and found “no statistically or substantively significant evidence of bias.”

Whether perception or not, some campuses have made public efforts to improve relations with all political parties by showing signs of greater political diversity. At the University of Colorado–Boulder a “conservative in residence” was recently appointed as a faculty member, a sign that college-friendly Republican intellectuals were welcome. In their book Passing on the Right, government and political science professors Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn Sr. write that as universities become more homogeneous dissent will decline, clearing the way for conservative professors to express their views.

Young Republicans have also made inroads at some universities, and in Virginia, that has caught the eye of young Democrats. In 2017 at Liberty University, considered a conservative institution, 93% of the votes from campus polling locations went to the Republican candidate for governor. “Young voters are helping to drive at least half of the largest Democratic shifts in the (Virginia) commonwealth … half of these locations have campus polling locations,” noted a statement from Virginia Young Democrats last year that called for more campus
polling sites.

Students are engaged, working to identify new polling places like at the University at Buffalo, where United Student Government has called for polling places to be moved back to Campbell Student Union after being moved off campus more than a decade ago. The effort is currently underway and has received support from another resident of the union, the New York Public Interest Research Group.

As was the case in Florida when students regained the right to have polling places on campus last year, university students in South Carolina led a successful lawsuit that challenged a requirement forcing them to fill out additional paperwork to vote if they listed a Furman University campus address. Students from Michigan State University and the University of Michigan currently have a lawsuit pending against the secretary of state based on what they say are the state’s voter laws that disproportionately affect college students, including a requirement that a place of residence match the address on a driver’s license.

At North Carolina Central University students complained to the nationwide nonpartisan Election Protection voter hotline that a traditional polling place at the student union had been moved, but no information about the change was published by the county board of elections website, nor at the traditional polling place. By 4 p.m. that day the website had been updated and a change of location sign posted at the former
voting site.

And in Iowa in August, the editorial boards of the student newspapers at Iowa State and the University of Iowa in a first-ever joint editorial condemned Iowa governor Kim Reynolds for scheduling a special election during spring break for a vacated state senate seat. In the same editorial the students chastised some state legislators for trying to pass a bill that would have banned satellite voting locations in state-owned buildings, in effect barring early voting on college campuses.

In addition to a surge of interest in boosting voting opportunities on college campuses, political scientists Lori M. Kumler and Brianna M. Whittaker earlier this year published research that showed higher rates of political participation among students when student leaders advocate for and incentives are provided for attending debate watching events. Besides students found to already have a strong interest in political participation, a second group of students examined, those “nudged” to attend, had a higher rate of registration and voting than non-watchers.

Campuses “may want to devote resources to providing incentives for students to attend coordinated presidential debate watch events that feature registration and voting resources, and to engage student reference group leaders in marketing and facilitating debate watch events,” they wrote.

Indiana Memorial Union at Indiana University became an on-campus polling place for the first time last year after county officials consolidated two other locations, in turn saving money. The change was made at the urging of the non-partisan All In Democracy Challenge that encouraged campuses to commit to boosting student voting rates. When campuses committed to the challenge, voter turnout data is submitted to the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement.

Based on 2016 turnout, that data showed Indiana University had lower student voter turnout than Purdue University and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, but the new campus-centric location proved a success, with polling time having to be extended one hour and voters having to stand in line for up to two hours to cast ballots last November. Purdue and Indiana also took part in the Big Ten Voting Challenge, a competition among the 14 Big Ten institutions to boost voting by college students in the November 2018 and 2020 elections. 


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