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College Students Are Showing More Engagement in the 2020 Election

Students might be more prepared than ever to head to the polls

September 1, 2020

In every election over the last four decades, young adults have been the least engaged members of the US electorate, not once voting at rates higher than 50 percent in presidential or midterm elections. Data from the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) show similar trends for college students, with voting rates rising slightly from 45 percent in 2012 to 48 percent in 2016.

Earlier this year, it looked like the 2020 election might be more of the same. In February, a Knight Foundation survey of twelve thousand “persistent nonvoters” found that eighteen to twenty-four-year-olds were less interested in politics, were less likely to follow the news, and “were far less interested in voting for president in 2020 even than chronic nonvoters” from older age groups.

But, as in every other aspect of American life, 2020 had different plans. In August, after students’ lives and educations were upended by health and racial justice crises, the Knight Foundation partnered with College Pulse to survey four thousand full-time students at four-year colleges and universities to see if the ongoing crises are affecting students’ voting plans. This year, college students might be more prepared than ever to head to the polls.

Students Follow the News and Are Ready to Vote

  • In the August survey, College Students, Voting, and the COVID-19 Election, 71 percent of college students said they are “absolutely certain” that they will vote in November’s election (see figure 1).
  • A similar percentage (72 percent) are paying attention to news about November’s election, but only 27 percent are watching the news closely.
  • Democratic students (81 percent) were slightly more likely than Republicans (74 percent) to be certain they will vote, and women students were more likely than men to be certain they will vote (75 and 65 percent, respectively).

Figure 1.

F&F Pie Chart1.png

Students Overwhelmingly Dislike Trump . . . but Don’t Like Biden That Much Either

  • Most students (70 percent) say they plan on voting for Joe Biden for president, and just 18 percent say they will vote to re-elect President Donald Trump.
  • But the report says that these figures may reflect intense dislike for Trump rather than a fondness for Biden. The vast majority of students (81 percent) say they have an unfavorable view of Trump, compared with 19 who view him favorably. Slightly more students view Biden unfavorably (51 percent) than favorably (49 percent).

Students Plan to Vote by Mail but Have Little Confidence in the Election

  • More than half of students (53 percent) say they will vote early by mail, and just 29 percent say they will vote in person on Election Day.
  • However, they’re not sure how easy it will be. About half of students say voting will be very difficult (7 percent) or somewhat difficult (42 percent).
  • More than half of respondents (55 percent) think the November election won’t be administered well, and 49 percent expect that it won’t be open or fair.
  • The survey asked students about possible problems that could make them have “major doubts” about election results. About half said that they would have serious concerns if the winner of the popular vote lost the election (46 percent), if there were problems at polling sites like broken machines or long lines (50 percent), if there was low voter turnout (46 percent), or if there was foreign interference (48 percent).
  • Black students were much more likely than their peers to say that the winner of the election losing the popular vote (65 percent) or long lines at polling places (63 percent) “would lead to major doubts about the equitable nature of the election.”

Students Are Most Concerned about Coronavirus, Race Relations, and Climate Change

  • Two-thirds (67 percent) of college students “personally knew someone who had tested positively for COVID-19.”
  • Given these data, it’s perhaps unsurprising that a third said that the COVID-19 pandemic is the most serious issue facing the country today.
  • Many students (22 percent) were most concerned about “racial inequality, police mistreatment of Black people, or racism.”
  • Other students viewed climate change (12 percent), the economy (7 percent), inequality (7 percent), or White House leadership (6 percent) as the most pressing issues facing the country.

Students Will Argue Over Politics, but Might Not Take Action

  • While most college students say they have had political disagreements with family members (69 percent) or people they didn’t know very well (55 percent), they were less engaged in other forms of political activity.
  • The most popular political activity was posting in online discussions (38 percent), followed by wearing clothing with political messages (34 percent), contacting an elected official (33 percent), donating money to a political cause or candidate (22 percent), participating in a political gathering like a protest or rally (21 percent), or putting up a sign in their dorm or home (14 percent).

How Institutions Can Drum Up Electoral Participation

Election Imperatives, a collection of reports from the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education (who are also responsible for the NSLVE), provide several suggestions that college and university administrators, faculty, staff, and student organizations can take to drive voter and political participation.

“Institutional leaders should use their positions to advocate for students’ civil right to vote,” they say in their 2020 report. “We also see opportunities for community building, healing, cross-campus dialogues, debates, and activism. Learning, social change, and voting are normally communal acts. The challenge will be doing them during a time of physical distancing.”