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ASU student voter participation in 2020 rises from 2016

Younger voters post higher turnout than older peers, national report says


I Voted montage

Photo by Janine Robinson/Unsplash

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November 15, 2021

Younger voters often avoid elections. But not at Arizona State University.

ASU student voters ages 18 to 21 — usually an age group that casts among the fewest ballots — turned out in November 2020 in significantly greater percentages than their older counterparts, according to a recent report chronicling U.S. college student voting.

Some 7.5% more ASU student voters cast ballots in the 2020 general election than did four years earlier, according to the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement (NSLVE).

The Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, published the NSLVE. The institute compiled enrollment data for a range of universities on file at the National Student Clearinghouse and compared it against public records for voter signups and turnout.

For ASU, the report found that 65% of the university’s 18- to 21-year-old student voters cast ballots last year, up 17 percentage points from 48% in 2016. However, slightly older ASU student voters didn’t participate as fully. The rate for those ages 22 to 24 was 55%, while the rate for students ages 25 to 29 was 51%.

Alberto Olivas, executive director of the Congressman Ed Pastor Center for Politics and Public Service, said the noticeable rise was encouraged by the hard work of student volunteers. They were led primarily by the ASU Student Civic Coalition and the Andrew Goodman “Vote Everywhere” Ambassadors, who helped get out the vote in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Olivas said he was particularly impressed by the 18- to 21-year-old ASU student turnout, which he said was similar to that of voters in their 40s or older.

“ASU voters between 18 and 21 voted nearly on par with Gen X and baby boomer voters,” Olivas said. “In 2020, 65% of ASU students between 18 and 21 voted, similar to a 66% voting rate for those 45 to 49.”

The high participation rate among the youngest voters is gratifying, Olivas said, given that many of them were voting for the first time. In most election cycles, such voters require more outreach and support to take part in elections, he said.

Overall, 63.4% of all registered ASU student voters cast ballots in 2020, up from 55.9% in 2016, according to the report. The percentage of all ASU students who are registered to vote also rose from more than two out of three to more than three out of four during the same period, from 68.4% to 79.7%.

Olivas said the overall growth in total registrations and turnout in 2020 occurred despite the pandemic-prompted cancellation of many campus voter-outreach efforts.

“You didn’t have the tables outside on the malls with information to remind students to vote,” said Olivas, who said the Andrew Goodman Fellows worked with the Pastor Center to engage and register students to vote in 2020 using other methods.

“What makes these increases in voter turnout so much more impressive is the fact that this election cycle took place in the midst of a devastating global pandemic, which made traditional in-person voter outreach efforts impossible,” he said.

“Groups and organizations that would normally hold many on-campus voter registration events, candidate forums, debate watch gatherings, ballot measure discussions, etc., no longer had those outreach mechanisms available to them. We all had to figure out for the first time how to conduct student voter engagement online and in virtual spaces, without the incentives of food, giveaways and the opportunity to meet and shake hands with candidates and local celebrities.”

Two May 2021 ASU graduates and former Goodman Fellows who worked on signing up student voters expressed satisfaction with the improved ASU turnout.

Ayesha Ahsan, who earned Bachelor of Science degrees in economics and sociology, is now a first-year law student at Boston College. She plans on a career in civil rights law, with the goal of expanding voting rights and working for racial justice.

“Engaging in opportunities at ASU to expand access to the ballot was instrumental in my choosing this career path, and I am grateful to have been given a chance to serve a community I care so deeply for,” Ahsan said. “While we have made great strides in increasing access to the ballot at ASU, civic engagement extends beyond voting. I hope that ASU's community will continue to create a widespread culture of advocacy and sociopolitical engagement. Civic engagement is crucial to developing an educated and prosperous community, and I am hopeful that we will continue to see tremendous growth from ASU and Phoenix in general.”

Cyrus Commissariat, now a first-year student at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law in Evanston, Illinois, said the experience taught him that voting has many ramifications.

“It has been apparent to me that the law has inequities baked into it, which underscores the importance of voting,” said Commissariat, who earned Bachelor of Arts degrees in political science, history and French. “When the electorate is engaged, and politicians know we are watching, we can rewrite these inequities and make the law work for everyone. Reading these numbers is a tremendous source of pride for this Sun Devil. There is so much work yet to be done."

The report made several findings about ASU student voting behavior. Among them:

  • By degree program: Undergraduate and graduate student voting participation at ASU both increased in 2020 over 2016, but the percentage was higher – 61% – for undergrads than for the graduate students, who posted a 53% rate. The undergrad rate was 12 percentage points higher than the 49% of four years ago, while the grad student rate was 2 percentage points higher than the 51% rate in 2016.
  • By year in school: Eligible first-year students had a 60% turnout rate, up from 48% in 2016. Second-year students had a 63% rate, while 61% of juniors and seniors cast ballots in 2020, all up significantly from 2016.
  • By academic major: ASU students voted in greater percentages in 2020 than in 2016 across every academic discipline measured by the report.
    • The highest percentages were found among those studying history; area, ethnic, cultural and gender studies; and English language and literature (67% each).
    • They were followed by public administration and social sciences (66%), communications and journalism (65%), legal professions and studies (65%) and education (65%).
    • Students in STEM (sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields trailed the others, posting turnouts ranging from 53% to 60%. Still, students in all STEM areas posted increases in turnout since 2016, the report said.

Get access to the full NSLVE report on ASU student voting from 2016 to 2020.

The Pastor Center is based at the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions

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