BestColleges Student Voting Toolkit

VoteAmerica logoBestColleges is proud to partner with VoteAmerica to help drive the student vote in 2020. VoteAmerica is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to empowering underrepresented populations to exercise their right to vote. These tools will help you register, show up, and prepare for the election this fall.

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The 2020 Election and the Power of the Youth Vote

The 2016 presidential election exposed deep rifts in American society. Whether the issue was immigration, wealth inequality, or the value of truth in politics, voters were split along partisan lines. Four years later, these rifts have only widened.

For as divided as the country seems to be, young Americans are increasingly united. A 2019 Harvard Institute of Politics poll found that 61% of college-aged voters are concerned about the "moral direction of the country"; a majority of them also want action on climate change, college affordability, and gun violence.

Generational Composition of the 116th U.S. Congress

Members of Congress by Age in the 116th House of Representatives

Source: Business Insider

These values may influence the outcome of the 2020 election, and more than ever before, young people are poised to make an impact. As of this year, 1-in-10 eligible voters belong to Generation Z, and millennials now match baby boomers as the largest share of the American electorate. Data from the 2018 midterms also shows that young people ages 18 to 29 are starting to vote in larger numbers — up 16 percentage points since 2014.

Moreover, the 116th Congress is the youngest and most diverse in U.S. history, reflecting the power of younger generations to vote their values. These demographic shifts bode well for college students who want to reshape the future of American politics. And with the presidency, all 435 House seats, and 35 Senate seats up for grabs, the stakes couldn't be higher.

Will the Youth Vote in 2020?

Young adults are historically much less likely to vote than other demographics. But contrary to popular belief, this demographic is not politically apathetic; they just participate in different kinds of political activities.

"They're more active in lots of things, from working with community groups to giving money to a campaign or political causes," explained Russell Dalton, research professor at UC Irvine's Center for the Study of Democracy. "But they're really turned off by elections and elected politicians," he added.

This aversion to the electoral process stems in part from a perceived lack of dynamic and effective politicians. In an age of fake news and talking heads, young people value authenticity above all else.

Young adults are historically much less likely to vote than other demographics. But contrary to popular belief, this demographic is not politically apathetic; they just participate in different kinds of political activities.

In her article "The Psychology Behind How Young People Vote", developmental psychologist Marilyn Price-Mitchell says that young Americans want elected officials who challenge the status quo, believe in the common good, and speak truth to power.

This may be why college-aged voters are a driving force behind larger structural reforms on key issues such as immigration and gun control. "[Y]oung Americans are open to ideas that older generations have traditionally written off," according to Richard Sweeney, co-chair of the Harvard Public Opinion Project. "Voters under 30 are not bound by precedent or old institutional norms."

Perhaps as a result of this tendency, young Democratic voters are more likely to support candidates with sweeping political and economic agendas, like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. According to the Fall 2019 Harvard Youth Poll, both candidates lead the field of presidential candidates among prospective college-aged voters.

But how will college students actually vote in 2020? While the results are impossible to predict at such an early stage, we do know how young Americans feel about a variety of issues that are centerstage in the 2020 election.

How Will Young Americans Vote in 2020?

Other prominent issues driving the youth vote:

Education and college affordability

Student debt affects 44 million Americans and has more than doubled since the start of the Great Recession. In the 2016 election, 61% of voters aged 18-34 said that a candidate's position on student debt would influence their vote. And according to a 2018 MTV/Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) report, 48% of white young people aged 15-24 say the cost of higher education is critically important to them, while 73% of black young people and 68% of Hispanic young people make the same assessment. In the spring 2020 Harvard Youth Poll, 85% of young Americans favored some measure of reform to confront the student loan debt challenges facing their generation.

Jobs and unemployment

While jobs are an important variable in every election, not every voting demographic reports the same levels of job insecurity. In the 2018 MTV/PRRI report, 52% of young white people say jobs and unemployment are critically important issues to them, compared to 69% of young Hispanics and 81% of young black people. A plurality of millennials also worry about how advances in technology will decrease employment, according to a March 2018 GenForward survey from the University of Chicago. In the spring 2020 Harvard Youth Poll, the economy was the third most important national concern among young Americans at 14%, behind coronavirus (19%) and healthcare-related concerns (17%).

Healthcare and coronavirus

A May 2017 GenForward Survey demonstrated that healthcare is a concern to many millennials, with 26% of African Americans, 33% of Asian Americans, and 32% of white Americans identifying healthcare as one of the three most important problems facing the country. As of fall 2017, 56% of young Americans in a Harvard Institute of Politics Survey supported single-payer healthcare policies, while 21% opposed. According to the same poll, nearly one-third of Republicans and more than half of independents also supported single-payer healthcare. In the spring 2020 Harvard Youth Poll, a plurality of young Americans shared that coronavirus (19%) and healthcare (17%) were their top national concerns going into the 2020 election.

Racism and racial equity

The increased visibility of white nationalism at home and abroad, as well as the vocal ascendance of the youth-led Black Lives Matter movement, highlights how deeply concerned people are about racism in America. According to the fall 2017 GenForward survey from the University of Chicago, racism was cited as the most significant problem in the U.S. among black millennials (52%). According to the same survey, millennials of all racial backgrounds cited racism as one of the three most important problems facing the U.S. today.

Climate change

While the president calls global warming a hoax, about half of young Americans believe climate change is a critical matter facing the United States, according to the 2018 MTV/PRRI report. In fall 2017, the Harvard Institute of Politics reported that 64% of youth aged 18-29 agreed that global warming is man-made and mostly caused by emissions compared to 55% who agreed in spring 2015.

Immigration

The University of Chicago's January 2018 GenForward survey shows that more than 75% of millennials agree that undocumented immigrants who are eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) should receive American citizenship. Around 43% of white millennials approve of how President Trump is handling immigration compared to 25% of African-American, Latinx, and Asian-American millennials.

Inequality and the rising cost of living

Over the last several years, the astronomical wealth of the so-called "1%" and the relative decline in wealth of America's middle class has increasingly concerned many voters. According to the 2018 MTV/PRRI survey, 41% of white young people, 52% of Hispanic young people, and 73% of black young people report that the growing gap between the rich and poor is critically important to them. In the spring 2020 Harvard Youth Poll, 67% of adults aged 25-29 reported carrying debt, and 63% of young adults under 20 were concerned about the rising cost of housing and their futures.

Gun control

A February 2018 survey by Quinnipiac University found that young people between ages 18 and 34 support the Democrats' position on gun violence, which favors increased regulation, by a margin of 62% to 27%. According to the Harvard Institute of Politics, 61% of Americans between 18 and 29 believe gun laws should be more strict; in 2013, fewer than half felt that way. Young Republicans also say gun laws should be more strict by a 2-1 margin, according to the same Harvard poll.

Gender equality

The #MeToo movement has sparked a national conversation on sexual harassment and constrained gender roles. According to the 2018 MTV/PRRI report, 38% of young women and 17% of young men feel constrained by gender stereotypes.

Net neutrality

The repeal of net neutrality rules by the Federal Communications Commission in December 2017 angered young Americans. According to a March 2018 GenForward survey, most millennials across ethnic and racial groups oppose the repeal of net neutrality and want Congress to create laws protecting it.

What Can Be Done to Increase Youth Voter Turnout?

Young voters face many structural barriers to voting including photo ID requirements, limits on early voting, and voter registration restrictions. Depending on the willingness of lawmakers to expand voter registration, there are a few changes that can potentially bypass these structural barriers and get youth voters more involved in the electoral process.

One idea that is gaining momentum around the country is automatic voter registration. Some states have also created commissions designed to educate students on the importance of civic engagement and voting, while others require voter education and voter registration drives for voting-aged students.

Below, we have compiled resources for students, academics, and policymakers to help get out the vote.

What You Can Do About It

Rock the Vote

Rock the Vote is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that is dedicated to building the political power of youth in America. The organization was founded in 1990 by music executives in response to the censorship of hip-hop and rap artists. Today, Rock the Vote helps millions of young voters register to vote and turnout at polling locations across the country. Members advocate for voting rights and increased access to the democratic process. Their website hosts a robust resources page, information on how to get out to vote, and an events page.

Can I Vote?

This website is maintained by the National Association of Secretaries of State and is the nation's oldest nonpartisan professional association for public officials. It helps eligible voters figure out how and where to go to vote.

TurboVote

This is a free online voter registration tool that includes alerts for voters. TurboVote tracks registration and vote-by-mail rules in all states and can even mail paper copies of required forms to voters with stamped, addressed envelopes for their local election officials. The organization also operates the TurboVote Challenge, an initiative that aims to increase voter turnout in the U.S. to 80%.

Vote.org

This nonprofit digital voting organization helps remove barriers to voting and increase voter turnout. They offer a free online voter registration tool, which allows voters to check their registration status, obtain absentee ballots, find a polling place, and receive election reminders.

Vote411.org

Vote411.org was launched in 2006 by the League of Women Voters Education Fund as a one stop shop for election-related information. They offer information to the public on general and state-specific topics, including voter registration verification. The organization also operates a number of hotlines in multiple different languages that can answer voting-related problems.

The Democracy Commitment
This organization offers best-practices documents on running voter registration drives and getting youth out to vote. These documents are useful for those who are trying to ramp up youth voter turnout, mainly on college campuses.

Research Tools and Resources

Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement

CIRCLE serves young voters in the U.S., especially those who are marginalized or disadvantaged in political life. The organization performs research that informs policy and practice with the goals of creating healthier youth development and increasing youth civic engagement.

National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement

NSLVE is the signature initiative of the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University's Tisch College. This study allows academic institutions to learn about their student registration and voting rates, as well as closely examine their campus climate for political leaning and engagement. More than 1,000 campuses around the country are already enrolled, which should help NSLVE create a database that contains nearly half of all U.S. college students.

Harvard National Youth Poll

This poll is conducted by the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School and examines the political opinions and civic engagement of young Americans between the ages of 18 and 29. The first poll was done in 2000 by two Harvard undergraduates, and the spring 2018 round is the 35th edition of the poll.


Special thanks to Ben Strauss and Kyle Kuhn for their help in completing this report.

Disclaimer: BestColleges is not affiliated with any political parties, and none of the information on this page is intended as or should be construed as legal advice. The information contained on this page is for general informational purposes only.