Courtesy of Nirali Patel.

The University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy hosted a virtual panel discussion on the increase in college-aged students voting, titled “The politics of university student voting,” on Thursday afternoon. 

Susan Jekielek, an associate research scientist at the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research, moderated the discussion and began the conversation by recapping highlights from the 2020 National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement study. The study was led by the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University.

According to the report, the national student voting rate has been increasing with each election. In 2020, the institutional voting rate was reported to be 66%, compared to the 52% during the 2016 election.

Jekielek then introduced Nancy Thomas, director of the IDHE. She said her and Thomas were interested in how college students were voting and the populations they were missing.

“We look at political equity, particularly gaps of voting among college students and how we might be able to close those gaps,” Jekielek said. “We are very hyped up, frankly, about the state of political discourse and the need for political discourse in student learning.”

In 2020, the student voting yield rate was reported as 80%, meaning that 80% of students who were registered to vote before the election did vote. Thomas said it was important for researchers to focus on voting rather than simply registration.

“We felt that people were focusing too much on getting students registered when they were already registered at (high) rates,” Thomas said. “Where we needed to work is in the area of motivation — how do we remove barriers for students and voting and how do we get them to actually follow through and vote.” 

Thomas said there were several factors that influence students’ voting turnout. She discussed the role of political activism, adding that Stop Asian Hate protests, Black Lives Matter protests and actions of the Trump administration that sparked more youth civic engagement.

“Students were on fire,” Thomas said. “I think they were very deeply, deeply upset by George Floyd’s murder. All of the information and knowledge that emerged around the need for Black Lives Matter and transgressions against the communities of color … I also think that these numbers might reflect, in some cases, the easing of voting conditions.” 

Dave Waterhouse, interim co-director of the Edward Ginsberg Center, discussed the virtual voting-outreach efforts made by the University, saying these voting efforts helped many students become involved in the turnout and advocate for greater voter access in Michigan. 

One of the initiatives was an on-campus satellite City Clerk’s office in the University of Michigan Museum of Art, where students could register, request a ballot and vote at the museum. Waterhouse also mentioned the University’s Democracy & Debate theme semester for 2020, which held lectures and events about various political issues during the election season.

“In addition to the voter-engagement (efforts), staff and students delivered workshops, panels and presentations to build student knowledge and commitment to engage in civic life in multiple ways,” Waterhouse said. 

Vincent Hutchings, professor in the departments of political science and Afroamerican and African Studies at the University, also spoke on the panel. Hutchings said his biggest takeaway from the study was the increase in voting patterns for different race demographics, particularly for multiracial Americans, Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans. 

For Hispanic Americans, the percentage of voters grew from 47% in 2016 to 60% in 2020. The percentage change from 2016 to 2020 for Asian Americans was even higher, going from 34% to 51%. These changes are significant because they demonstrate an increased attentiveness to voting among racial minorities, Hutchings said.

“I thought, ‘Wow, that number is huge,’ huge for the following reason: because historically both Asian Americans and Hispanics vote at a much lower rate,” Hutchings said.

Hutchings also noted other factors in the study that he believes should be taken into account, such as the demographics of young people who are not enrolled in college, as well as those enrolled in community colleges who he believes are underrepresented in the study. 

“I think that we should be happy that the higher (voter) turnout rates amongst Americans were large, but it may not (be) a reflection of all younger Americans,” Hutchings said.  “There was likely still some discrepancy in the turnout rate of younger Americans at large.”

Thomas said college students are a large and significant voting population, making increases in voter turnout among college students particularly important. 

 “When you’re a large group, you actually do have power,” Thomas said. “And when you have power, you learn to exercise it.”

Daily Staff Reporter Nirali Patel can be reached at nirpat@umich.edu.