A little-known provision of the Higher Education Act which creates a federal obligation for colleges to help with voter registration could be a key for youth turnout efforts.
After a disappointing election night, it’s time to start thinking about the effects of the collective decision our country has made. Despite the importance of Tuesday’s election for determining the direction of policy for the next two years and setting the tone for the 2016 presidential campaign, youth turnout was low – as it almost always is. Youth aged 18 to 29 made up only 13 percent of this year’s voting electorate, even though we represent nearly double that percentage of the population. Additionally, approximately half of 18-year-olds aren’t registered to vote.
Understanding and increasing youth turnout has been the topic of many policy papers and op-eds. The problem is twofold – we must register young voters in higher numbers, and then increase the number who show up to vote. Here’s the difference: often, it’s adults pushing registration and get out the vote efforts on newly eligible voters. What if, instead, we took the initiative to encourage our peers, create policy, and hold institutions accountable in order to get more youth engaged, registered, and voting?
Colleges have a federal obligation to “make the voter registration forms widely available to your students and distribute the forms individually to your degree or certificate program students who are physically in attendance at your institution.” If every “covered institution” made the broadest effort under this provision of the Higher Education Act, they would make sure every student at that university or community college was provided a voter registration form and the necessary instructions to complete it. Universities could also make registration change forms readily available to students who registered to vote in their parents’ district, but would prefer to vote in their school’s district. This would minimize the burden of voting on students as they could fulfill their voting responsibilities locally.
Here’s the first thing students can do: If students think their institution falls under this requirement, they should make sure it is fulfilling its obligation to its student body. If not, they should talk to administrators to try to find out what more the college or university can do.
In the state of Georgia, individuals are eligible to register to vote six months before they turn 18. Given the age range of most entering college freshmen, schools could provide voter registration forms at college and university orientation, as well as a time and place to complete the form and return it for mailing. This is such a simple policy change at the university level that could have significant impact. If students can prove to colleges that they are required to do this, and that they can fulfill this obligation in one fell swoop at orientation, why wouldn’t they?
Even if colleges have responsibilities to their students regarding registration, these institutions don’t necessarily provide unique opportunities to increase voting. Countless student organizations, nonprofits, and campaigns run get out the vote efforts on campuses, but universities themselves aren’t doing anything to increase turnout. Colleges could take responsibility for providing absentee ballot request forms in the same manner that they provide registration forms.
Some states provide special voting provisions for college students. Pennsylvania offers emergency absentee ballots for voters who could not apply for an absentee ballot by the regular deadline. One of the qualifications for receiving an emergency ballot is status as a college student. These ballot requests must be placed by the Friday before Election Day. States could help students (and other voters) apply for absentee ballots online, minimizing the burden on young voters to participate in this process.
Another chance to speak up: Students should talk to their colleges about what opportunities exist on their campuses to make voting easier. Students can help administrators devise or improve plans to offer absentee ballot request forms for students and could also develop policy proposals to take to their state government that argue for broader options in applying for absentee ballots.
Not all youth are in college, though, and a majority of engagement efforts targeting this demographic focus on college campuses. Even though there is significant room for improvement in those initiatives, we must also look at broader policy that could reach every eligible youth. The state of California opened online voter registration for one month before this year’s election. Though it was only open for a short time, the results are “striking.” Online registration appeared popular with all voters, but young voters in particular utilized this new method of registration. Thirty percent of online registrants were under 25, and this led to an eight percent increase in turnout in that age bracket.
Time for another action step: Roosevelt Institute Campus Network members should write policy proposals to bring online voter registration to their states. California’s success is an important metric to show lawmakers and stakeholders in other states that this form of registration is a viable option.
Colleges have historically been hotbeds of political activity and activism. It’s time to capitalize on the enthusiasm of young students and translate that into votes. Additionally, we should spread the spirit of political engagement on college campuses to youth outside the ivory tower. We need to be inclusive when it comes to youth registration and voting efforts, targeting nonstudent youth through statewide efforts. Expanding registration efforts, which by necessity involves talking to young people about voting, will make a big difference on Election Day 2016.
Megan Ernst, a senior at the University of Georgia studying journalism, political science, and public administration, serves as the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network’s Senior Fellow for Education.