December 09, 2019
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50 percent voter turnout shouldn’t be reason to cheer

Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Orono residents waiting to register to vote line a section of the indoor track at the University of Maine New Balance Student Recreation Center in Orono on Nov. 8, 2016.

Earlier this month, hundreds of colleges were given awards for their voter participation rates. More than 60 campuses, including Bowdoin College in Brunswick, were awarded platinum status for having student voter participation rates of 50 percent or higher in the 2018 election. Gold seals were given to more than 150 schools that had eligible student voting rates between 40 percent and 49 percent.

We in no way mean to denigrate the millions of students nationwide who cast ballots in 2018, or All In Campus Democracy Challenge, the group that made the awards at a Nov. 12 ceremony. But a 50 percent voting rate shouldn’t be much to cheer about for any part of the electorate.

Democracy, as the saying goes, is not a spectator sport. Yet far too many Americans of voting age sit on the sidelines each election year. Given the weighty issues that are on ballots — whether they be a choice for president, governor or city council — and the diversity of candidates in many races, there is little reason for qualified voters to sit out. Referendums and ballot issues should also draw voters to the polls.

Many states, and college campuses, are working to increase participation. They’ve got a lot of work to do. After all, 50 percent turnout is good enough for platinum status.

But, especially among young voters, there are important signs of progress.

Nationally, voter turnout was 50 percent in the 2018 election, an off-year election. In 2016, a presidential election year, turnout was 60 percent. In an election as critical as the faceoff between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, 40 percent of eligible American voters still took a pass entirely.

Voter participation in Maine has long been above the national average. In 2016, voter turnout in the Pine Tree State — 72.8 percent — was the second highest in the nation, behind Minnesota at 74.8 percent, according to Ballotpedia.

So, what can be done to increase turnout? Voting trends on college campuses provide some answers.

In 2018, the average turnout among college students was 40 percent, more than double the 19 percent turnout in 2014, according to data from the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement. Over that same period, voter participation among all age groups increased by roughly 14 percentage points.

Why did college students voting increase so much? The short answer is that a lot of time and energy was spent by a lot of different entities to educate students about the importance — and ease — of voting, and to register them to vote. In 2018, more than 73 percent of college students were registered to vote, up from 65 percent in 2014, according to the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement. Not surprising, the voting rate is higher among registered voters than among the population of voting eligible adults as a whole. In 2018, 55 percent of registered student voters cast a ballot.

The campus with the highest voting rate in 2018, according to the All In Challenge, was New College of Florida. More than 64 percent of eligible voters at the small Sarasota school cast ballots in 2018, a significant increase from 29 percent in 2014. Nearly 88 percent of the campus’ students are registered to vote. A third voted absentee and more than 27 percent voted early, highlighting the value of allowing early voting, which Maine does as well.

Early voting — allowing voters to cast ballots before Election Day — is credited with high voter turnout among college students in Florida. Republican lawmakers in the Sunshine State have tried to restrict early voting on college campuses, which is unfortunately reminiscent of past Republican attempts to suppress college student turnout in Maine.

A number of schools that earned the All in Challenge’s platinum status, the highest ranking, are in Colorado, Oregon and Washington — three states that conduct all of their elections solely by mail. All three states have voter participation rates above the national age. This highlights another innovation that could potentially increase voter participation among all age groups.

The data collected from college campuses shows that small changes can make a big difference. For example, ensuring voters are registered and that they can easily cast a ballot without having to show up at a designated polling place at a designated time can lead to big boosts in participation.

Making voting easy and accessible for all voters is one of the best ways to improve our democracy.

 



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