Students are disillusioned, but they’re still motivated to vote,
new Campus Vote Project x HIT Strategies survey finds
The Up and Up
By Rachel Janfaza
Youth voter turnout surged in the 2018 midterm elections. But a lot (COVID-19, extreme weather, a racial reckoning, school shootings, the rollback of abortion rights, and a swath of new election laws that may complicate the voting process for students) has happened since.
Anyone looking to turn out young voters in 2022 is probably thinking about the impact of these events on students' lives. Do students believe their votes matter? Do they view electoral politics as an effective tool for change?
To learn more, Campus Vote Project, an initiative run by the Fair Elections Center aimed at increasing access to student voting, partnered with HIT Strategies, a messaging and strategy firm that specializes in researching minority communities, especially young Americans, communities of color and the LGBTQ+ community, to conduct a survey of college students on “vote motivation and messaging.”
Students are disillusioned and many are skeptical that voting is the answer to the problems they face; but they still feel motivated to vote, the survey found.
Just 52% of students said they believe their vote has the power to make change on the issues important to them, while 30% said they believe their vote has little to no power to make change, according to the report.
Yet, the survey found that 70% of students are motivated to vote in the 2022 midterm elections. And while students are overall vexed by the current state of affairs, more students say they are angry and motivated (39%) than angry and unmotivated (8%).
Asked to list barriers preventing them from voting, more students said a “belief that voting doesn’t change anything” (41%) than a “lack of information on voting process” (26%), “lack of time to spend waiting in line or filling out mail-in ballot” (21%), or “inconvenience of poll location and lack of transportation” (20%).
But that’s not to say that students couldn’t benefit from more on campus voting options and clearer information about how and where to vote. Nearly half of students (49%) said on campus ballot drop-off boxes or voting sites would be the most beneficial campus resource to promote student voting.
Bucking the misconception that young voters care more about social issues than economic issues, the survey found that students view economic and social issues to be pretty much equal, with 44% of students listing the “cost of living/inflation” higher than “abortion access” (43%) and “gun violence prevention” (43%) as the issues that matter to them most.
So, what’s up?
To get a better sense of the numbers reflected in the survey, I spoke with student organizers from Campus Vote Project and MOVE Texas, a nonpartisan youth voter engagement and civic education organization.
Josh Tenorio and Rachel Thompson, both seniors at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas and organizers with Campus Vote Project, said it’s impossible to decouple social and economic issues and highlighted the potential impact of recent events like the 2021 Texas freeze and Texas’ abortion ban on students’ socioeconomic situation.
“The university increased our tuition. We felt that was wrong because of some of the damages from the frost. Or with abortion, a lot of students are concerned with how much they would have to pay if they went out of state for an abortion or if they would still have access to cheap Plan B on campus or if that would be taken away too,” Tenorio said.
“I think it’s kind of oblivious to say that our identities, our social identities that we identify with, has something totally different to do with our socioeconomic status, especially since we have to pay for school, we have to pay for rent,” Thompson said.
Thompson and Tenorio said students are motivated to vote when they learn about the on campus Election Day voting center. They also described students’ recent excitement when Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke visited Austin.
“Beto came to Austin, and a lot of students were really excited to talk to him. Thinking that Beto, or any candidate really, cares about students’ opinions enough to come out and speak to them has improved the idea that their voice does matter,” Thompson said.
When it comes to the logistics around voting, Kristina Samuel, a senior at Texas A&M and the president of the university’s chapter of MOVE TEXAS, fought tooth and nail this summer and early fall to restore an early voting location in the center of Texas A&M’s campus. Brazos County commissioners had voted in July to remove the early voting location from the school’s Memorial Student Center.
Samuel said the preexisting on campus early voting location was “convenient” for students, cut down lines, and shortened wait times. Without it, she fears the impact could be “disastrous” and reduce the number of students who are able to vote.
“In an election as big as this, it’s really frustrating,” Samuel said.
Samuel detailed her election-day voting experience from the 2020 primaries.
“I left enough time. That line spanned around the building, and I waited three hours in line and barely made it to my next class. Everyone saw the line and was like, ‘Hell no,’” she said.
Despite pushback from students like Samuel who testified to the Brazos County Commissioners Court in favor of the on campus early voting center, the site will note be restored. But Samuel said the students' activism demonstrates their overall energy and motivation to vote in the midterm elections.
“These incoming freshmen, there’s something different about them. They’re so energized by this information, they’re so ready to commit action,” Samuel said. “I think part of that was them being in high school when COVID hit, and then coming to college now and feeling like they can make a change.”
For his part, Chauncy Whaley, a 37-year-old communications scholar and Campus Vote Project organizer at Edward Waters University, Florida’s oldest HBCU, has been advocating for the restoration of an early voting site on campus, too.
Whaley described the lack of an early voting location as “an issue at our campus that goes beyond just what’s on the ballot.”
“If you send your child or student to an HBCU or any campus, you are instilling in them the opportunity and right to be a citizen and leader,” Whaley said. “Eliminating an early voting site is a hindrance to them and their productivity as citizens and their right to vote.”
Off the bat, the survey found that Black students, first-year students, and community college students are less motivated to vote than their counterparts. The survey polled students on community college, public state university, and private college campuses. It reached students pursuing associate and bachelor’s degrees. Campus Vote Project currently works with over 280 colleges and universities, across 41 states, reaching a network of over 3.4 million students.
Read the full Up and Up edition here.