Students Registered. But Will They Cast Ballots? College Vote Unpredictable Heading into Election Day

Students pause outside the hall at Belmont University where the second 2020 U.S. presidential debate was held on October 22. While more young people in several states have already registered and voted early than in 2016, it's not yet clear how the student vote will play out in 2020. (Photo by ERIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty Images)

Students pause outside the hall at Belmont University where the second 2020 U.S. presidential debate was held on October 22. While more young people in several states have already registered and voted early than in 2016, it's not yet clear how the student vote will play out in 2020. (Photo by ERIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty Images)

November 2, 2020

A promising bloc of young voters — students — remains unpredictable heading into Election Day.

Ahead of November 3, voter registration by people ages 18 to 24 was higher in most states than it was in 2016 — by more than 33 percent in some places. But registration doesn’t necessarily equal voters, even in elections without a pandemic and unprecedented barriers to the ballot box. 

Students who register to vote don’t always show up at the polls, said Nancy Thomas, director of the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education (IDHE) at Tufts University. The institute has a database of 10 million student enrollment records from more than 1,100 campuses across the country, which it uses to study student voting

During the 2016 election, about a third of registered students didn’t cast their ballots, Thomas’ research found. “The problem has been what we call the yield rate, the percent of the students who are registered to vote and then follow [through] and vote,” Thomas told FRONTLINE. “The question is, how is COVID going to affect voting?” 

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, many college campuses have shifted to remote learning, and students have scattered. Even the weather could affect the final student turnout in 2020, Thomas said, as well as confusion around mail-in ballots, residency and contested voting laws. More young adults are also living at home than since the Great Depression. 

Still, Thomas expressed cautious optimism based on a spike in student turnout for the midterm election two years ago. The national voting rate for students in 2018 was twice as high as during the previous midterm — roughly 40 percent, up from about 19 percent in 2014, according to IDHE research. Among students, women were more likely to vote, and black women, in particular, consistently have been the most active voters on campus.

For presidential elections, student voter turnout historically has been higher than during midterms, Thomas said. And early voting data for the 2020 general election suggests high turnout, according to another research group at Tufts University, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). 

CIRCLE, which studies civic engagement by young people, found that early voting in the 2020 presidential election has increased significantly in key states, compared to 2016. In Texas, the number of early votes cast by people ages 18 to 29 has already exceeded the total votes cast by young people in the last general election — at 1,364,448 early votes as of November 1, compared to 1,219,677 total votes in 2016, CIRCLE reported. Battleground states such as Florida and Georgia are on similar trajectories.

“Young people are showing huge numbers,” said CIRCLE’s director, Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg. “That is a really encouraging sign about motivation and commitment to vote, despite the challenges.”

Research by CIRCLE also indicates that votes by young people could carry extra weight in several of the states where, already, they have voted early or requested early ballots in greater-than-usual numbers.

Young voters join a national surge to the polls, said Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida who has tracked early voting data since 2008. His research for 2020 shows early voter turnout in Texas and Hawaii has surpassed total votes in 2016, and that other states are on track to do the same. 

“When you have a high turnout election, you’re going to get turnout rates going up through all groups,” McDonald said. “It won’t just be older people who are voting at a higher rate. That would be very unusual. And so what we’re already seeing in the data is that, yes, there are more younger people who are voting.”

Moreover, McDonald said young voters have a greater margin to grow turnout than other age groups who are “near their ceiling,” he said. “These younger voters, they have much more room to increase their turnout.”

Students can have additional power to choose between voting in their home state or in the state where they attend school. An organization founded by high school seniors in Georgia, Students for 2020, aims to leverage that flexibility using an online tool that shows where a student’s vote is most likely to change the outcome of an election.

“That’s crazy that we’re sitting on all this power,” co-founder Edward Aguilar, 16, told FRONTLINE. “Our end goal is to have student ideas heard as clearly as possible in government.”

The tool includes a link to registration information for each state, which has been used more than 50,000 times since its launch this summer, most often in California, Pennsylvania, Texas and Florida. Aguilar said he hopes the effort has motivated students to register and that they will cast a ballot, regardless of affiliation, if they know their vote is more likely to make a difference.

Manny Rin, who leads the New Voters Project for Student PIRGs, a national network for student activism, says registration is half the battle. His work now focuses on guiding students to the polls, the 30-year-old said. “The thing that we’ve been really urging and stressing is that we’ve got to continue the work on election day,” Rin told FRONTLINE. “Continue working hard to make sure we can turn people out.” 

During the pandemic, Student PIRGs has shifted to remote tactics such as phone calls and text messages to reach students across the country more than 600,000 times in the days ahead of registration deadlines. Yet even in Rin’s own home, half of his roommates have left early ballots lying unused on their desks.

Likewise, Thomas said she has noticed a spike in attendance at online election events yet worries the momentum may be lost off-screen. The facts won’t crystalize until months after the election, she added, or longer if the results are contested. She added it’s not yet clear how many of the young people casting ballots in 2020 are also students, although, “It’s pretty clear that we are on a trajectory to a record-breaking year in terms of voter turnout, and there’s no reason to think that college students wouldn’t track that pattern.”

“They are a formidable voting bloc,” Thomas said. “I don’t think we can discount their power.”

Zoe Todd

Zoe Todd, Former Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships



More Stories

When Criminal Justice Systems Have to Deal with Mental Illness
Mental health court data shows graduates of its program are less likely to re-offend. But what happens if one isn't eligible?
June 6, 2023
After Uvalde, Gun Safety Groups Amped Up Spending in Texas This Year, But Will Still Likely Be Outspent
In Texas this year — against the backdrop of the first legislative session since the deadly shooting in Uvalde — gun rights groups are likely to outspend gun safety groups.
June 2, 2023
A Year After the Uvalde Shooting, Robb Elementary Student Remembers Her Slain Best Friend
Caitlyne Gonzales made it out of Robb Elementary on May 24, 2022. Her best friend, fellow fourth grader Jackie Cazares, did not. Caitlyne, her parents, and Jackie’s parents share their story with correspondent Maria Hinojosa in the new documentary ‘After Uvalde.’
May 30, 2023
“Somber Day” in Uvalde as Community Commemorates One Year Since Robb Elementary Shooting
From our partners at The Texas Tribune: Numerous vigils and memorials in Uvalde marked one year since the massacre at Robb Elementary School.
May 24, 2023