Thursday, August 11, 2022

University students showed unprecedented voter engagement in 2020, earned national recognition

NewsCampus NewsUniversity students showed unprecedented voter engagement in 2020, earned national recognition
Bianka Heather/THE REVIEW
The voting rate of University of Delaware students​ increased significantly, rising to 75% in 2020 from a rate of 55.5% in 2016.

Associate News Editor

Election, what election? During the election that would elevate alumnus Joe Biden into the vice presidency, the Princeton Review named the University of Delaware one of the most politically apathetic campuses in the nation. Yet, high levels of voter engagement indicated 2020 brought a surge of student voters — leading the university to victory in turnout. 

The voting rate of University of Delaware students​ increased significantly, rising to 75% in 2020 from a rate of 55.5% in 2016, according to an Oct. 2021 report by the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement​ (NSLVE, pronounced “n-solve”), an initiative of Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy and Higher Education​.

On Nov. 8, 2021, the university received the 2021 Gold Seal for excellence in student voter engagement from the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge. The achievement also earned the university recognition in Washington Monthly’s 2021 Best Colleges for Student Voting Honor Roll.

It was at the same time, in 2007, that Lindsay Hoffman, Ph.D., first stepped foot on campus. Dedicated to inviting civic engagement and student voter turnout since her arrival, the associate director of the university’s Center for Political Communication says that new data demonstrated that, despite its former ranking, more university students have become engaged in the democratic process. 

“Whereas I used to have to start conversations with students with ‘why you should care about politics,’ I don’t have to do that anymore,” Hoffman, who is also an associate professor of communication and political science, said. “Many of them are already engaged. Now they want to know what more they can do to be involved outside of elections.”

NSLVE, the nation’s largest study of student voting and represents 1,051 colleges and universities, also reported a significant growth in voting by the university’s student demographics, including gender, race and field of study. Some fields exceeded the university rate, and traditionally politically-apathetic fields, like business (up 33%), mathematics (up 36%), engineering (up 30%) and physical science (up 36%), saw large gains.

After a year of a global pandemic, civil unrest and a contentious election, research suggests that the political divide in the United States has become wider in 2020. Anya Sen, a junior and president of registered student organization (RSO) Make It Count, said that while there may not be one definite cause for the swell in student voting, political polarization may have been one of them. 

“Tensions have become a lot higher,” Sen said. “And it does become a little bit more interesting or attractive to students, not necessarily in a positive way, but it does become more interesting rather than traditional politics.”

Sen also views voting as a double-edged sword.

“As it becomes more polarized, it does also turn a lot of people off of politics because they view it as this nasty unpleasantness and just don’t want to support either,” she said. 

That said, it did not stop students from making their voices heard.

“I truly believe that it’s possible to change the culture on college campuses,” Hoffman said. “Just because we were once considered “apathetic” doesn’t mean that defines who we are as a university.” 

Established in 2017, Make It Count bridges the gaps between students and civic engagement, with the help of the university and faculty, such as Hoffman. The RSO aims to get all students registered to vote, regardless of party. One way they have done this is through TurboVote, a software that sends voting reminders and helps with voter registration. In 2020, Make It Count acquired about 3,000 student voters through TurboVote.

2021 marks the 50th anniversary of the 26th Amendment, which granted Americans ages 18 and up the right to vote. In his proclamation commemorating the milestone, President Biden wrote that despite the progress made, “there is still more that we can and must do to deliver on the promise of the 26th Amendment.”

Reflecting this sentiment, Sen says that although the university is supportive of Make It Count’s action, there is more that the university can do to increase turnout rates. For example, there are no designated voting places on campus during election seasons, which may be a barrier for students living on campus. 

“If you see students voting on campus that like a designated voting place, like other students who weren’t planning on voting might see that and be like, ‘oh, now I want to vote too.’ It’s a good butterfly effect.” 

Hoffman, who Sen describes as a “civically engaged person without necessarily being political about it,” received a grant from the Heterodox Academy to research best practices in engaging college students to take part in civil dialogue. Over time, Hoffman hopes to create more young voters through conversations. 

“My goal is for students who graduate from UD to be able to say ‘that was a place where I could share my voice, and I also heard voices different from my own,’ because democracy thrives on a plurality of voices. We need to hear and consider other points of view, lest we fall further and further into our own echo chambers.” 

To get involved, students can sign up for TurboVote and the university’s IssueVoter​, an online platform where students can get alerts on legislation, contact their representatives and see how their lawmakers fall on the issues that matter the most to them.

Editor’s Note: Anya Sen was previously a reporter for The Review. She left The Review in 2020 and no longer holds a position on staff.

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