Will stagnant voter turnout among college students explode in the 2020 election?

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Voter turnout in the United States is significantly lower than other established democracies, but in 2018, midterm election turnout peaked to the highest it has been in 40 years. According to the United States Census Bureau, 53% of voting age citizens voted in the 2018 midterms, marking a historic 11% increase in voter turnout over the 2014 midterms, including increases among all major racial and ethnic groups of voting age citizens.

Turnout for the 2020 election is expected to hit record highs.

In 2018, the 18-29 demographic in particular turned out in record numbers. Voter turnout among 18 to 29-year-olds saw a 79% increase from 2014. However, the overall turnout rang in at 36%, less than half of the age demographic.

At Boise State, 17,500 students fall into the lower half of the 18-29 age demographic. Low overall turnout from voting college students can be attributed to numerous factors, from lack of knowledge about the candidates and policies to when and where one can register to vote. The misinformation can be costly to first-time voters, impacting their ability to be an informed voter in each election cycle.

According to assistant political science professor Dr. Jeffery Lyons, the voting patterns within this demographic have remained consistent since early 2000.

Lyons explained that the college-age demographic has consistently had a progressive lean. The most common trend among this age group is the discussion of high turnout possibilities, which has proven contrary to fact during each election cycle.

“There has yet to be an election where, all of a sudden, we have this large surge of younger turnout,” Lyons said. “So I think that’s one of the big narratives is always about that, but it just hasn’t happened yet. Until it happens, my guess is always that we’re going to continue to see generally low turnout rates amongst that age group.”

The 2020 election

With a vast pool of candidates and a controversial incumbent, there has been speculation that 2020 could be a record year for voter turnout. While turnout overall could be higher, Lyons is unsure that the 18- to 29-year-old turnout will have a significant increase.

“When we’re looking at 2020, our comparison category should always be other presidential races. So we wouldn’t want to compare that to 2018. There’s no doubt turnout in 2020 will be higher than 2018, just by virtue of being a presidential year compared to a midterm year,” Lyons said. “But if we were going to compare 2016 turnout to 2020 turnout, it’s always possible that we pick up a point or two.”

While lack of information is one of the main reasons college students do not vote, according to Lyons, there are other factors that first-time voters may be completely unaware of. These voters have not experienced the voting process, which may overwhelm them.

Lyons says one of the main reasons students do not vote may be because of other “life” things. A student’s environments may not give them the opportunity to inform themselves about the candidates; during the 2020 election, though, it could prove to be more difficult to ignore.

“When we have our national level races, you’re going to look at hundreds of millions, if not over a billion dollars spent campaigning. What that does is drive up knowledge, it drives up interest and it gets people to vote,” Lyons said. “But when you’ve got these local level races where the candidates and the campaigns just don’t have the resources, the money, the bunch of TV ads, they don’t have the ability to reach people quite the same. You just get much lower turnout lips, and that’s generally speaking across the board.”

Local versus national elections

Local elections generally receive even less attention from the college-age demographic, but for Lauren McLean’s recent mayoral campaign in Boise, college students played a key role.

Before McLean became mayor of Boise, she served two terms as city council president. When running for city council, McLean ran unopposed and had very little citizen engagement from the 18-29 demographic. She relied on herself to fundraise and reach out to voters, but did not have many volunteer efforts due to the nature of a city council campaign.
McLean explained that, in order to win the mayoral race, she had to involve a variety of target demographics. That said, she and her team focused on involving groups that typically have low voter turnout.

“In my mayoral race, the 18-24 year olds in Boise were very involved in my campaign. We offered stipends for emergent leaders – Field Fellows – which created opportunities for students and recent grads to learn how to organize campaign activities and be deeply involved in the race,” McLean wrote in an email. “We also had many young volunteers showing up weekly to help us out, engaging their friends and parents and participating in events we held.”

Getting college-age locals involved was McLean’s way of showing students how impactful local elections are. McLean visited Boise State weekly with the intention of informing students who is running for office and the issues being voted on.

“It was obvious weekly, every time I stepped into a classroom or onto a campus, that 18-24 year olds in Boise are thinking a lot about the place they live in and the future they want to have,” McLean wrote.

Despite her efforts to involve 18 to 29-year-olds, some students still felt uninformed of McLean and other candidate’s platforms. Kyra Dean, a senior business major, explained that she has not voted in any local elections because she did not feel she was educated enough about the candidates to make an informed decision.

“I don’t think we inform ourselves the same way we do with the national elections, especially with how far we are with social media,” Dean said. “Everything’s about the presidential elections, and I think we forget to think about what’s going on locally.”

Although Dean did not vote in the Boise mayoral election, she voted for the very first time in the 2016 presidential election. She explained that her family taught her the importance of voting; Dean felt she had a responsibility to vote in that election.

“I felt like in that election in particular, it was really important for as many people to vote as possible because everything seems so divided,” Dean said. “But really, in my opinion, college students don’t think it’s important enough to vote. So I feel like I needed to be a little voice for
the college students, because everything that happens affects us, too.”

The student vote

National elections commonly produce greater turnout than local elections, but some young voters believe that local elections hold just as much, if not more, importance as federal elections. Pryce Robinson, a senior political science major and former president of Boise State College Republicans, believes local elections impact everyday life more than national elections.

“I personally believe that there’s a great level of political apathy in our generation,” Robinson said. “It’s really important that people understand that [the]base level voting has such a greater impact on your day-to-day life, whether it’s you paying 10 cents more for a plastic bag at the grocery store, or paying 30 cents more for a gallon of gas. I mean, those are the kinds of things that you have to vote on.”

Like Dean, Robinson believes that local officials fail to engage the 18-to-29 demographic during election cycles. However, Robinson explained the information is available to those who do the research, and because of this, there is never an excuse for not voting.

“I personally have little sympathy for people who say they’re too busy to vote. It comes down to personal accountability and you taking advantage and becoming more knowledgeable in regards to who’s running, what policies they stand for, how you can vote, if you’re registered to vote,” Robinson said. “I honestly think there’s not a lot of excuses.”

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