The University Network

What Will Make College Students Vote In 2020?

There is no question that today’s college students are deeply invested in politics.

They are taking to the streets of their campuses in historically large numbers to protest against gun violence, racial injustice and climate change, among other issues.

But when it comes to voting, young Americans haven’t shown up at the same rate as their parents and grandparents. In the 2016 presidential election, only 49 percent of eligible millennials voted, compared to 69 percent of eligible baby boomers.

Along with the established barriers that can make it difficult for them to get to the polls, students and young Americans have been dissuaded by candidates who don’t share their beliefs, morals or eagerness for change.

“It is really just the way politics have turned,” said Anthony Eliopoulos, the statewide president of College Democrats of Ohio. “This past (presidential) election was ugly; it was mean. It didn’t inspire anyone to get out and vote.”

And for young Americans to check their first ballot box, they must feel motivated.

But, in the 2020 election, young Americans have a tremendous opportunity to elect a candidate who shares their beliefs and can turn them into policy.

Together, Generation Z and millennials now make up the largest voting block.

“We finally surpassed the baby boomer generation,” Eliopoulos said. “What we want to see in policy can actually happen if we get out to vote, but historically we haven’t turned out.”

Getting students to the polls

So, in an effort to encourage young Americans to vote and to break down the barriers that keep them from taking to the polls, many campus groups and national organizations, such as Rock The Vote, HeadCount and more, have created new initiatives and revamped their old ones.

Rock The Vote, which was founded by music executives in 1990 in opposition to the strict censorship of hip-hop and rap artists, now primarily works to make registration and voting a seamless process for young Americans.

“Young voters are often new voters who have never participated in the process before,” said  Melissa Wyatt, the civic technology program manager at Rock The Vote. “There are so many barriers in the process, and any one of them can prevent a new voter from being able to participate.”

There are logistical barriers that states impose, such as strict voting dates, deadlines and absentee rules, that make voting difficult for students who may also work, have limited access to transportation, or attend an out-of-state college.

And there are educational barriers, Wyatt said. Young Americans are often left on their own to develop an understanding for the voting process and determine why an election — including those at the local level — may be important to participate in.

“I feel that many voters have the experience of showing up to the ballot box and not really understanding what’s on their ballot and what the impact of the offices they are voting on will actually be in their day-to-day lives,” Wyatt said.

“And that can really be intimidating,” she continued. “It can discourage someone from participating who has never done it before.”

In an effort to mitigate these barriers, Rock The Vote has developed an online registration tool and a voter status tool, which people can use to check if they are already registered to vote.

The organization also runs a robust Election Reminders program, through which people receive clear and easy-to-understand text and/or email updates on upcoming local, state and federal elections.

“We are letting people know in advance and providing them information about why they should participate and what’s going to be on their ballot so that these barriers don’t affect them, and so that they are able to turn out to vote,” said Wyatt.  

More recently, Rock The Vote relaunched its Democracy Class initiative, which is geared to educating high school students on the history and importance of voting, while also registering and pre-registering them to vote.

On university campuses, developing ways to encourage students to vote is difficult. It requires out-of-the-box thinking.

As the president of the College Democrats of Ohio, Eliopoulos tries to get speakers and politicians on the state and national level to speak on Ohio’s college campuses.

“But it is hard to,” he said. “The speakers and politicians don’t see investing in college students as super helpful, because they aren’t going to turn out to vote. They don’t want to take time out of their day when they could be campaigning somewhere else and get more guaranteed voting opportunities than they would campaigning to college students.”

So campus groups have to get creative.

For example, while Eliopoulos was serving as the vice president of Ohio University (OU) College Democrats, he convinced students to register to vote by rewarding them with bubble soccer — the sport of playing soccer while inside of an inflated bubble, allowing people to frantically run into and bounce off of each other with a lessoned risk of injury.

And to get students to the polls on Election Day, Eliopoulos, along with other members of OU College Democrats, would pick their peers up in golf carts to drive them to their designated polling location.

“Using what I did at OU, now as statewide president, I try to motivate chapters to think in a different way,” he said. “Try to make it fun. Try to speak directly to them.”

Will students vote in 2020?

If it was a general disinterest in politics that was causing such low voter turnout rates among students and young Americans, finding solutions in time for the 2020 election may not be possible. But, fortunately, that’s not the problem.

Instead, it is a lack of motivation — caused by discouraging candidates — and an abundance of barriers that keep young Americans from voting, which are problems that can be solved.

“On the whole, Generation Z and millennials are super passionate, are really engaged and have a really high level of awareness about what’s going on in the world,” said Wyatt. “It can just be difficult to participate in the voting process because all of the barriers.”