Students can impact elections, but they need support to perform civic duty

Photo by Max Böttinger on Unsplash.

This week on Higher Ed in the News, a couple of stories highlighting the role students play in elections and how faculty and staff can help students participate on Election Day. You can read last week’s edition of this weekly series here.

With college campuses at reduced capacity or even empty, local elections in areas with large student populations could be impacted in this year’s results. Turnout for young voters is a perennial issue, but there are ways that institutions of higher education can better help students understand their role and right to participate in this important civic moment.

In Michigan, incumbent Representative Elissa Slotkin was the first Democrat to win the 8th Congressional District – which includes Michigan State University – in 20 years, but only won by a margin of around 13,000 votes. Illinois’ 13th Congressional District includes a handful of schools such as the University of Illinois, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and Illinois State University, populations the Democrats were counting on to help beat out an incumbent Republican. In Oregon, the Fourth Congressional District, which encompasses University of Oregon and Oregon State, the margins are even thinner. With many schools in virtual mode, those voters may not be present to vote in the same districts this year.

Wherever they’re living, students’ participation in the election is not guaranteed. But the lack of participation from young voters is within our sphere of influence as educators. As EdSurge’s Rebecca Koenig pointed out, a new book by political scientists Sunshine Hillygus and John Holbein called “Making Young Voters” found that most young adults are interested in politics and plan to vote but have trouble following through on their interest.

This trouble can be partially attributed to registration laws, voter ID, and other institutional factors that make it harder to vote than students expect. Younger people also have a “far more fluid and unstable schedule and lifestyle” which can make it more difficult for them to follow through with plans, according to the authors. But these habits can be untaught.

The authors believe civics education needs to be reformed to move away from rote learning of history and instead connect what they’re learning with current events for real-life context. At Georgetown we may know this better than some others, but federal and state policy intersect with the course of study in just about any subject, so teaching your students about the issues in an election should be relevant to most faculty.

The 2020 election also has the potential to cause disruptions and well-being challenges for our students, which is why CNDLS has an election resources page for faculty as well as a post on how to teach around the election. This is a big moment in the United States, one that may be affecting us and that we have the power to affect ourselves.