After Michigan’s voter registration deadline passed on Tuesday, campus voting initiatives at the University of Michigan, such as the Big Ten Voting Challenge and Buses to Ballots, are switching gears to ensure students are educated about the candidates and prepared to vote on Nov. 6.
According to Tufts University’s National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement 2017 Campus Report, 44.7 percent of eligible University of Michigan students voted in the 2016 presidential election, compared to 50.4 percent for all institutions. NSLVE also reported that only 14.3 percent of eligible University of Michigan students, compared with 18.1 percent of students from all institutions, voted in the 2014 midterm elections.
In January 2017, Edie Goldenberg, professor of public policy and political science, founded Turn Up Turnout, a non-partisan student group which aims to increase voter registration and turnout among young people. Upon discovering the NSLVE data, Goldenberg said she felt motivated to develop a voting initiative.
“We’re surprised both at how low everybody is, and we’re surprised Michigan isn’t leading rather than trailing,” Goldenberg said. “So we thought this really wasn’t the Michigan that we know and are proud of, and we really wanted to do something about that.”
Goldenberg recruited some of her former students to form TUT, and they soon pitched the Big Ten Voting Challenge to University President Mark Schlissel. The Big Ten Voting Challenge, a competition among all the Big Ten universities to see which school can produce the highest percentage and greatest improvement in voter turnout in the Nov. 6 election, began in September 2017. Among the hurdles to student voting, registration was one of the first to be addressed.
“One big reason is that students move a lot and their voter registration doesn’t stay current, and they sometimes forget to update their addresses,” Goldenberg said. “Another reason is all the voting rules we have to abide by are state rules, and they vary by state, and some states have passed rules that make it much easier for young people to vote than other states. For example, quite a few states now have online registration, but Michigan doesn’t.”
The state of Michigan also does not offer early voting, which can alleviate scheduling difficulties for students trying to make time to travel to the polls. Erin Byrnes, democratic engagement lead at the Ginsberg Center, said the early voter registration deadline can also pose challenges to student turnout.
“We do have a voter registration deadline in Michigan that’s 30 days out, so the time is limited,” Byrnes said. “Once you’re back on campus, if you’re looking to register in Michigan, you’ve got roughly five weeks to make that happen.”
In order to increase student voter registration, TUT and the Big Ten Voting Challenge, as well as several other student groups, advertised voter registration information online and offered voter registration tables on campus. Now that the Michigan voter registration date has passed, the Big Ten Voting Challenge will focus on educating students about their choices on the ballot and voting logistics. Though the voter registration deadline in Michigan closed, voter registration for many out-of-state students is still open.
“Pushing people to get out and vote, making sure people know when election day is and when the polls are open, making sure folks know they can bring their U of M ID with them, that’s a valid form of ID, all of those things are really important,” Byrnes said. “Polls are open until 8 p.m., if you’re in line at 8, you can vote and they can’t tell you to leave.”
Byrnes said organizers will now focus on providing students with information on decisions they will have to make at the polls, including a proposal that would dramatically alter Michigan’s voter registration deadline.
“We’ll still doing in person, peer-to-peer tabling,” Byrnes said. “We’ll have infographics out on the Michigan ballot. We have three proposals on the ballot this year — potential legalization of marijuana, proposal on gerrymandering which would be redistricting state House, state Senate and congressional districts, and Prop 3 which is Promote the Vote, which would extend our voter registration deadline up to and on Election Day.”
Engineering senior A.J. Ashman, who been involved in past student voting initiatives and Central Student Government, created the Buses to Ballots initiative in order to assist students struggling with transportation to the polls on Nov. 6. Building off of the voter registration and education on campus, Ashman said he hopes to provide the last crucial step in ensuring students have the opportunity to vote.
“My goal is to translate that work they’ve done into results at the ballot box and making sure that the students that actually get registered to vote, go out and vote,” Ashman said. “We always see a drop-off between voter registration rates and actual voter turnout rates, who actually cast the ballot. We want to narrow that gap as much as possible, and this service provides one way to do that.”
Buses to Ballots will pick up from two places on campus, Pierpont Commons and Ingalls Mall, and will service 16 of the 37 polling places in Ann Arbor. Since one of Ashman’s highest priorities was enabling students to fit in voting in their busy schedules, the full route will only take approximately 30 minutes, and buses will run from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Multiple buses will run at once, so Ashman said students should not be waiting more than 15 or 20 minutes at any given stop for the next bus.
“All of this is part of an effort to really change how we talk about youth turnout in elections and why young people don’t turn out in elections,” Ashman said. “There are structural barriers that prevent young people from going to vote, one of which is we have classes on election day.”
During the past two years, Ashman worked on proposals to make election day an academic holiday. He said the idea was criticized because, similar to Buses to Ballots, it has not been done before at a peer institution. Though Buses to Ballots is basically unprecedented at a school like the University, Ashman believes that it will address an unmet student need.
“A lot of criticism we got for this initiative, Buses to Ballots, was ‘Why does no one else do this? Where is the data? How do you know this is going to work?’” Ashman said. “Well, we’re the first people doing it, so there isn’t going to be a whole lot of data about it. There’s value in just saying we believe something is true, we believe something should happen, and we’re going to at least try it.”