The polls have closed, the ballots have been cast, and the winners have been announced (for the most part). As the dust settles on another Election Day, Campus Vote Project is reflecting on the early student turnout estimates and our work across the country leading up to November 4, 2014. With the help of campus partners and organizational allies we were able to connect with students from across the country and help get them the information they needed to vote. But as the turnout numbers show, there is still work to do.
Low Turnout But Young Voters Improve… Slightly
Turnout for midterm elections is traditionally low and 2014 was no exception. Nationally, the estimated turnout rate was 36.6%, the lowest since 1942. Only 10 states had an increase in turnout compared to 2010. The rest experienced a decrease; seven states, even some with competitive races, had over a 9% drop.
Young voters, defined as ages 18-29, also had low turnout with an estimated 21.5% voting this year (about 9.9 million voters). This estimate is lower than turnout for the overall population, but a slight increase from 2010. Turnout for 18-29-year-olds in the last midterm election was 20.9%. There was also a slight increase in young voters’ share of the electorate compared to 2010. This year, young people made up 13% of the electorate compared to 11% in 2010. This number has varied between 11% and 13% since 1994.
These estimates don’t include provisional ballots or outstanding early and Election Day ballots. Once states certify results revised numbers will be available.
Midterm Elections Impact
Midterm elections’ historically low youth turnout has created a vicious cycle. Because turnout is typically low, candidates don’t focus on the issues that concern students. Because students are ignored by candidates they don’t vote. Candidates therefore gloss over student issues like higher education funding, student loan debt, the environment, job training and other issues.
Compared to the national narrative and excitement around a presidential election, midterms are relatively quiet. States that had competitive statewide races had better young voter turnout with 26.8% compared to 21.5% overall. But many states didn’t have competitive races and students didn’t have a national candidate to watch or volunteer for, leaving them disengaged.
Filling this gap is a critical step to participation. Young people make up 24% of the potential electorate and when they participate in higher numbers politicians will ignore student concerns at their own peril.
Other Barriers for Students and Misinformation
Students face other barriers to registration and voting, contributing to low turnout. A survey of registered students who did not vote in 2010 cited reasons like having conflicts or being too busy, and missing important deadlines for reasons they did not vote. While some non-voters cited apathy, the pervasive reason was poor planning and a lack of basic information about the registration process and deadlines and voting procedures and requirements.
For some young voters the 2014 midterms is the first time they are voting. Some students have moved from out of state and the rules are different from their home. This new process can be confusing and may discourage students from participating.
In the past few years many states have narrowed photo ID laws and limited early voting. Last minute court decisions this year involving these issues halted or reinstated election law changes creating confusion and limiting opportunities for education efforts.
Voter ID laws have become a widespread barrier for student voters. Some states only accept driver’s licenses from that state, putting out of state students at a disadvantage. Student IDs are distributed in almost any college, and are generally photo ID, but are not widely accepted as voter ID. Fourteen states have strict voter ID rules where a ballot can be rejected if the voter cannot present compliant ID. Six of those states do not accept student ID cards. The other eight strict voter ID states have variations on what kinds of student IDs are acceptable and what information the student ID must contain to be used as voter ID.
Students also were victims of misleading campaigns aimed at discouraging their voting in their college communities. In Berea, Kentucky, an anonymous group placed a full-page ad in the Berea Citizen newspaper (which covers the Berea College) erroneously stating students could not register with their college address and would have their votes challenged at the polls and face significant penalties. Early voting locations were removed from the campuses of Appalachian State (NC), North Carolina State and University of Florida.
Campus Vote Project’s Efforts to Fill the Information Void
When campaigns neglect student voters, it is up to the campus community, from administrators and faculty to student organizations and student government, to step in and make sure students are aware of their rights as voters. CVP recognizes the influence these groups have with students. When information comes from a trusted source, it carries more weight, and students are more likely to pay attention and absorb it. With that in mind, CVP worked with campus partners to distribute nonpartisan registration and voting information. As experts on the changing landscape of election laws and the numerous differences between the rules for each state, CVP made sure the information sent to students was accurate, easy to understand, and in a format they could use.
To fill the information void this election CVP used a wide variety of tools to reach students including:
- State-specific student guides - These provide concise information about registration and voting, and a Q&A addressing myths student voters may have about registering at college.
- Social media - CVP started a social media campaign #votepledge2014 that asked students to Tweet a picture of their pledge to vote and their reason why. CVP also developed timelines with sample social media posts and emails to remind students of important deadlines.
- Paid advertising - CVP purchased Facebook and student newspaper ads to direct students across the country to our voting guides for voting information.
- Voting websites - CVP worked with campuses to create student voting websites as a part of the official university site like this one at Miami-Dade College in Florida.
- Print materials - With partners on the ground CVP distributed posters and half-page palm card handouts. Colleges also customized our 6 Reasons Students Should Get Out and Vote to include statistics specific for their state and general reasons voting is important.
Despite CVP’s efforts, the efforts of students on the ground, and the work of other advocates and organizations, the low turnout numbers are proof our work is not done. With 2015 on the horizon we will be working to fight changes that would make it harder for students to vote like strict voter ID laws that don’t include student IDs and the elimination of early voting opportunities. We will also be encouraging more states to adopt online voter registration, preregistration programs, and other changes that expand opportunities for young voters. CVP will continue to work with university administrators and faculty to develop student voting webpages and make voting and registration part of their institution’s civic engagement mission. The lull in elections next year is a good opportunity to establish ongoing efforts on college campuses that encourage students to vote.
We would like to thank all the partners, coordinators, fellows and students who worked with CVP this year. We would not have been able to reach so many campuses without your hard work on the ground.