This year’s presidential election might come down to students. More than other large voting blocs, their turnout varies enormously from election to election, and some of the most important swing states have lots of students.
The Big Ten schools alone — in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio — will almost certainly influence who sits in the Oval Office in a few months. Same goes for universities in both Arizona and Florida.
But during this pandemic year, with so many students not where they expected to be, they face unique challenges in casting their ballots. If they don’t turn out in sizable numbers, Donald Trump could once again defy the pollsters.
Because of the pandemic, almost half of colleges, including many Big Ten schools, are fully or primarily online this fall, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. COVID-19 has all but eliminated social events that have been the historical bedrock of get out the vote efforts. Instead of students walking by a table on their way to lunch and being nabbed by a classmate to register, they are stuck in their dorm eating takeout. Buses that would shuttle students to polling places are off limits. And many students won’t want to risk showing up at polling places.
So they won’t vote. Unless we can get them absentee ballots.
The most striking example of the power of student voters is Michigan, where in 2016 Trump won by a mere 10,704 votes — not enough to fill one end zone section of Michigan Stadium, aka the Big House, in Ann Arbor. (Michigan and Michigan State alone have a combined 95,000 students.) Had Hillary Clinton achieved the same student voter turnout as Barack Obama in 2008, Trump would be selling golf memberships instead of riding in Air Force One.
Now consider that the top five schools in Pennsylvania have a population of 165,717 in a state Trump won by 44,292 votes. In Wisconsin, the top five schools include 115,194 student voters; Trump won that one by only 22,748 votes. In Ohio, high or low turnout at just Ohio State, with 60,000 students, could easily tip that state.
Both Trump and Obama benefited from the wide fluctuations in student turnout, which has varied by nearly 3.5 million votes over the past eight presidential elections, after adjusting for the increase in the number of students. Which is why, after the 2016 election, Democratic hand wringers took a hard look at where they went wrong with students in that election.
What they found had less to do with enthusiasm about candidates than with bureaucracy and logistics. At college many students must vote in precincts — and even states — different from where they grew up. That means that unlike most other voters, students must register well before Election Day.
And even that has its own challenges. Students at the University of Wisconsin may have a driver’s license from the state they grew up in, therefore requiring other, less available, forms of identity verification. Today’s digitally oriented students often don’t even have the stamp and envelope to send back their absentee application. Logistics get in the way, with students needing to borrow a car or take a city bus to get to a polling site. So does reluctance to go for fear of catching the coronavirus.
The student get out the vote model had four years of fine-tuning since Trump’s victory, and those improvements led to an almost doubling of student turnout in the 2018 election, when college students’ midterm participation rose from 19% to 40%. Of the more than 1,000 colleges the Tisch School surveys, 99% saw increases in voter turnout. With that kind of success, in a normal election year Trump would be doomed in places like Arizona and Pennsylvania where he trails in every poll and students are leaning hard toward Democrat Joe Biden.
But many of those game plans became irrelevant once the pandemic extended into this academic year. The University of Michigan has students distanced and taking many classes online, while Michigan State told its 50,000 students to stay home altogether. Other Big Ten schools are also primarily online or offering some in-person classes, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.
To address these issues, organizations like the Campus Election Engagement Project and the Jonathan Tisch School of Civic Life have created battle plans for colleges and campus voting organizations during the pandemic. Online tools like those developed by turbovote.org and vote.org allow students to register and apply for an absentee ballot using a user-friendly interface from their parents’ basement, all but eliminating the need for a car or to find a polling site.
Our organization, studentvotes.org, pays for those organizations to send students the stamp and envelope they need to mail in their ballot applications. Feel Good has harnessed social media, which they estimate reach at least 95% of the student population. This is a generation that can be quickly activated, as we experienced after the killing of George Floyd.
But thanks to the pandemic, in 2020 student turnout may be less about increases and more about treading water. Instagram and TikTok can’t do much for a Penn student registered in Pennsylvania but taking classes from her high school bedroom in Des Moines. The polls have shown strong unhappiness over the president’s handling of the coronavirus. But if the pandemic makes it hard enough for Wolverines in Michigan and Badgers in Wisconsin to vote, it might give Trump his second term.
ABOUT THE WRITER
David Dodson is a resident of Wyoming and former Republican candidate for U.S. Senate. He is on the faculty of the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
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