College-Age Voting Slide Possible as Pandemic Scrambles Students

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College students already confronting questions about return-to-campus plans face another fall challenge: how to vote.

Changing voting laws, remote learning, and pandemic-posed obstacles to outreach efforts could dampen student voting in states and congressional districts where higher student turnout was pivotal two years ago, say those who study college population voting trends.

The potential decline is of particular concern for Democrats. They’re depending on the support of liberal- leaning young people to bolster their candidates, particularly in battleground states and in tight races in congressional districts with college towns.

“Many states and races are very, very close,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, the director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. “So which young people can come out and whose vote is suppressed, whether it’s on purpose or not, can really make or break a Democratic candidate’s race.”

Student Confusion

Jessica Sullivan is a senior at Duke University in North Carolina, a state that could be pivotal in deciding the presidential race and control of the Senate.

Sullivan, who leads a non-partisan group that helps students vote, said her peers are confused about where they can vote in November after the university said recently classes would be online for the fall and only some students could return to campus.

Photo by Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images
A news crew interviews a student on the campus of Duke University in February.

She said many are registering outside of the district or state since they haven’t heard from the board of elections if students can still vote in Durham, where the university is located.

“It has been difficult,” Sullivan said. “We thought up until last week that all students who wanted to come back, could. Now we need to re-register so many students that we did not expect to re-register just a week ago.”

This year, the Tufts CIRCLE index predicted that the youth vote could have an outsized effect on the North Carolina, Arizona and Maine Senate races, as well as House toss-ups in Iowa and Oklahoma. Kawashima-Ginsberg said college students vote at higher rates than youth who aren’t students, and campuses have driven turnout by hosting events and fostering an atmosphere of civic engagement.

The vote among undergraduate and graduate students surged in 2018, doubling from 19% in 2014 to 40% four years later, according to a study by the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts.

Younger people are increasingly breaking with their elders in voting patterns, with 67% of people between the ages of 18 and 29 favoring Democrats in 2018, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. By contrast, 48% of people 65 and older voted for Democrats in that election.

Lucinda Guinn, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the committee is “working on a case-by-case basis” and planning voter registration drives where students are slated to return.

“We know that can change on a dime,” Guinn said. “There is no one-size-fits-all strategy on this front. This will look different and evolve in the next few weeks as we figure out where college campuses are going to be.”

Lower student turnout could particularly affect districts with large universities. Sabato’s Crystal Ball slightly downgraded Rep. Peter DeFazio‘s (D) chances in Oregon’s 4th District from “safe Democrat” to “likely Democrat” because of the uncertainty around whether the University of Oregon and Oregon State University students will come back to their campuses in the district.

The Democrats’ chances of flipping Illinois’ 13th District might also be reduced if students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign don’t return. Rep. Rodney Davis (R) was re-elected in 2018 by less than a percentage point.

University of Illinois political science professor Brian Gaines said he predicts many students will stay home in other states or different parts of Illinois, which he said would prevent those students from voting in the district.

“Having survived 2018, Davis can mobilize the people who supported him who aren’t going anywhere,” Gaines said. “He can end up with a little bit of a bonus from that decline in the student vote.”

Ashley Winters, a junior and member of the University of Illinois’ College Democrats chapter, said many students don’t know how to vote by mail, particularly if they will be living outside of the district, and the group is concerned that fewer students on campus will mean fewer votes in the congressional race.

“There’s confusion about where students can vote,” Winters said. “We’re concerned that because they don’t know how, they just won’t vote.”

Vote Supression

Marc Elias, a voting rights lawyer and attorney for the Democratic Party, said there have always been attempts to suppress the student vote, particularly when students are trying to vote where they go to college.

Seven states don’t accept student IDs for voting. Others like New Hampshire require proof of living in the district, and some require additional steps to prove a mail-in ballot is valid, such as a witness or notary signature. Some of those requirements were waived in primaries because of the pandemic, but Elias said it’s difficult for students to keep up with changing voting laws.

Students should be able to vote where they attend college even if they are attending remotely, Elias said, but colleges need to make sure students are aware they can.

“It wouldn’t surprise me that we see some last-minute efforts to try and disenfranchise student populations, particularly in the location where they go to school,” Elias said. “Colleges and universities can’t turn away from that. They need to lean into that and make sure they are protecting their students’ voting rights.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Samantha Handler in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at; Kyle Trygstad at

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