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Democracy in Action

Use information and facts to motivate students to vote

By Nancy Thomas

October 26, 2022

With only days until the polls close for the 2022 midterm elections on November 8, it’s important that higher education leaders, faculty, staff, and student voter mobilization groups turn right now to ramping up their efforts to encourage student electoral participation.

Most students who are eligible to vote arrive on campus already registered to cast a ballot (or, in some states, they can take advantage of same-day voter registration and voting). In 2014, registered students followed through and voted at a rate of only 30 percent (for nuances around in- and out-of-state student voting, read more here). This resulted in the shocking fact that the average voting rate for college students ages 18–24 in 2014 was a meager 13 percent. While rates significantly improved in 2018, the yield rate—the percentage of students who registered and followed through to vote in the election—was still only 55 percent. That means that slightly more than half of the students who registered to vote turned in a ballot. But campuses can help improve that rate in the upcoming midterm elections. (For more data on recent student voting trends, check out the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement, Democracy Counts, and Liberal Education’s spring 2022 Research Corner.)

At Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy & Higher Education (IDHE), we view elections as a means to an end, as the proverbial teachable moment about democracy’s health and future. Both long-standing and new threats to democracy include backsliding civil and human rights and increasing inequality; threats to free and fair elections; the rise of authoritarianism, extremism, and white nationalism; and attacks on academic freedom. With only a short time to go until the polls close for the midterms, we encourage campuses to laser-focus their efforts on advancing facts and truth. Inquiry and truth are not just academic standards in higher education, they are the job.

One obvious and timely opportunity this election provides to educate for the truth concerns unsubstantiated lies and disinformation about the outcome of the 2020 election, which are being used to manipulate voters. Indeed, election deniers are running for office in twenty-seven states, according to NBC news. These include the nearly one in three Republican candidates for statewide offices who support overturning the results of the 2020 election, according to a September 2022 PBS report. Currently, 345 candidates seeking election in the 2022 midterms, according to the Brookings Institute, have expressed false claims that the 2020 election was “stolen” with manipulated vote counts and that President Joseph Biden’s sizable win by more than five million votes was fabricated. These candidates are seeking to be members of Congress, governors, secretaries of states, and attorneys general, as well as state legislators. The list of people who promote lies about the outcome of the 2020 election can be found here.

When educating students about how to separate 2020 election facts from fiction, it can help to have a summary of the facts. For starters, there is no evidence of systemic voter fraud in the 2020 election, according to scholars at the University of Chicago, Stanford University, and Harvard University. The US Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the US Election Assistance Commission, US Department of Homeland Security, and countless election officials and experts have confirmed that the 2020 election was secure, according to a December 2020 round-up by the Brennan Center for Justice. William Barr, the attorney general during the Trump administration, also confirmed the integrity of the 2020 election. More than sixty lawsuits were filed challenging the outcomes of elections at the state level, but only one succeeded on a minor technicality. In addition to the January 6 attack on the US Capital to stop the process of confirming the 2020 election results, efforts to refute the election outcome continue through social media outlets, protests, changes to election laws made by state legislatures, and campaign promises.

Some academics reading this article might worry that presenting these facts to students could be seen as learning that is “partisan” or not “neutral.” Please do not conflate “political” and “partisan.” These words are not interchangeable, and it is nearly impossible to discuss any issue of public relevance without the discussion turning to policy, democratic practice, or effects on the everyday lives of people across ideology, identity, and lived experiences. It is not only permissible to talk about politically charged topics in a democratic society, it is the reason for academic freedom and is essential to the job of educating for a more inclusive, equitable, and just democracy. Carefully choreographed efforts by either party to undermine one of democracy’s most essential tenets—free and fair elections—is worthy of study, discussion, and teaching across higher education. In addition, IDHE’s research and other research, including from Tufts Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, demonstrates that issue activism and issue discussions motivate voting. This means that college and university educators can work to engage students in the voting process by helping them align their informed opinions with candidate positions and ballot initiatives. We know from campuses that participated in our National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement that tailored support for understanding issues and candidates is a priority need for campuses during election seasons.

Here are some free, open source, and nonpartisan resources that can aid you in helping your students align their views with their votes:

  • ActiVote, an interactive tool to help people align their viewpoints with candidates
  • Ballotpedia, a tool that allows people to see what their ballot looks like in preparations for elections
  • Guides.Vote, a set of guides around specific states and races nationally
  • League of Women Voters’ Education Fund, which provides candidate and ballot Information
  • Legal Defense Fund, which offers a summary of voter resources and ways to assess candidates
  • Vote Smart, which gives free, factual, unbiased information on candidates and elected officials

It’s not too late to motivate students to vote in the midterm elections and make sure they are equipped with facts and information as they cast their ballots.

Adam Gismondi, Prabhat Gautam, Duy Trinh, Victoria Tse, and Mariani German of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education in the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University all contributed to this article.

Author

  • Nancy Thomas

    Nancy Thomas

    Nancy Thomas is the director of the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education in the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University.

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