Student voters can be a key demographic for both Republicans and Democrats, but according to a survey conducted by The Michigan Daily, candidates in Michigan still have some work to do at the University to get students’ attention.
The survey, which was sent out over email to 1600 undergraduate students late last month, was completed by about 200 students.
Among respondents, fewer than 50 percent identified as either politically active or politically informed. On most specific national policy and state issues, including support for labor unions, right to work laws, aspects of the Affordable Care Act and a controversial Michigan law approved in 2013 requiring the purchase of an additional rider for abortion coverage on some healthcare plans, respondents consistently chose that they had no opinion as the majority response.
This excluded questions gauging support for a raise to the minimum wage and a raise in taxes to fund education, which a majority of students supported.
Furthermore, across the board in state races, an overwhelming percentage of respondents identified as undecided, by margins ranging from 65 percent in the race for Michigan’s governor, to 82 percent in the race for the 12th District U.S House race, which includes Ann Arbor in its borders. In the race for one of Michigan’s two U.S. Senate seats — the first open Senate seat in the state in 20 years following the retirement of Sen. Carl Levin (D–Mich.) — 73 percent identified as undecided.
The numbers aren’t entirely surprising. Younger voters, both those enrolled and not enrolled in college, are typically considered a lower-engagement demographic as a whole when it comes to politics, especially in years without a presidential election.
A spring 2014 study by the Harvard Institute of Politics on American 18 to 29 year olds eligible to vote found that overall, only 19 percent of those surveyed considered themselves to be politically active. In contrast, 30 percent of respondents in the Daily’s survey said they were “politically active” and an additional 5 percent who said they “strongly agreed.”
Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, said low levels of engagement among young people and differences between young people enrolled in college and those who are not can often be explained by differences in mobilization — the process of disseminating campaign information and encouraging voter participation.
“There’s a good effect to mobilization. It works,” Levine said. “The University can be a place that’s targeted for mobilization for party operations and party volunteers to reach out … and that’s a good thing. Relative to suburban neighborhoods, there may be less mobilization going on (there). Everybody’s young and they tend be off lists and not noticed. On the other hand, relative to low-income working twenty-year olds in Detroit, a University of Michigan student is much more likely to be contacted.”
He added that at four-year, competitive institutions like the University of Michigan, several factors can contribute to relatively higher level of engagement in comparison with others in the same age demographic, most namely higher levels of societal advantage among the campus population.
Michael Burns, director of the Campus Vote Project, said in terms of direct political participation by voting, there are also several basic structural barriers to the act of voting for college students, namely lack of knowledge about deadlines, residency requirements for out-of-state students and other logistics.
Only 23 percent of voters in the Harvard survey said they would “definitely be voting” in this year’s November midterm elections, and in the last midterm elections in 2010, 24 percent of 18-29 year olds voted, according to U.S. Census data. On college campuses, a little over 30 percent of college students voted in 2010, according to data from CIRCLE.
In comparison, the average voting rate among eligible voters in U.S in the 2010 midterm election was 45.5 percent.
“I think a lot of it is just overcoming — I like to call it an information deficit,” Burns said. “Only about 13 percent of (college students who don’t vote) say ‘Oh, it just wasn’t important’ or ‘Oh, my vote wasn’t going to change anything.’ So I think the majority of folks would vote, even in midterm elections, if they had the right information.”
For two of the biggest partisan political student organizations on campus — the College Democrats and the College Republicans — high levels of potentially unengaged and undecided eligible voters are something they see as both an opportunity and a responsibility.
According to The Daily’s survey, along with a lack of demonstrated political engagement and a tendency toward indecision, only 40 percent agreed that they were well informed about political issues.
“I think that there is a huge problem of disengagement from politics with young people,” LSA senior Trevor Dolan, chair of the University’s chapter of the College Democrats, said. “A lot of it is people haven’t necessarily had the time to experience what political processes can do for them, and they’re sort of divorced from it because they haven’t been moved by it ever.”
LSA senior Gabriel Leaf, chair of the University’s chapter of the College Republicans, said especially on college campuses, the first step towards becoming engaged can be difficult.
“It’s hard for youth to get involved in politics … it’s definitely not something we think about all the time,” he said. “It’s the first election for many of us.”
Dolan said for this year’s midterm election, College Democrats is choosing to focus on specific issues and the progressive values they speak to, as opposed to simply encouraging people to vote Democratic, in an effort to better cater to students.
He pointed to several issues as particularly relevant for students from the Democratic perspective, including incumbent candidate Republican Gov. Snyder’s 15 percent cut to university funding in 2011 and the recent introduction of amendment to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act by several Democratic state senators and representatives, which would change the act to include sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression as protected classifications.
“It’s really important that people understand that what’s being debated impacts them very directly, like for example their tuition increase, or that they’ll be secure in their job and can’t be fired because they act too effeminate,” he said. “I think that’s what our responsibility as the College Democrats is, to convey to them why what is happening right now matters, and why the people they vote for matter.”
Leaf said College Republicans was also taking an issues-based approach, namely focusing on jobs and the state’s economy.
“I see us as an opportunity,” he said. “We are there to educate everyone, to provide opportunities, to give people access to that (and) further their involvement.”