Last year, New Jersey’s election turnout — the highest in at least two decades — was explained as the result of greater enthusiasm among Democrats, particularly those in the suburbs, along with anti-Trump sentiment and more extensive use of mail-in ballots.
A new report points to another reason for the turnout: More college students voted. Collectively, New Jersey universities saw the largest increases of any state in the proportion of students who voted in 2018, compared with the 2014 midterms.
The report by the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University estimates that more than 40% of the nation’s college students voted in the 2018 midterm elections, when Senate, congressional and a handful of legislative seats were on the ballot. That was more than double the student voting rate in 2014 — 19.3%.
“Historically, voter participation rates in presidential elections have been far higher than in midterm elections,” states the report Democracy Counts 2018. “This election defied this longstanding pattern … This suggests a promising trajectory to student voting.”
The report is based on analyses of turnout at 1,000 colleges across the country that enroll almost half of all students. Universities choose to participate and get a detailed report about voting patterns among their student bodies.
Turnout tripled at Rutgers-New Brunswick over 2014
The institute does not provide results for individual schools, but its data for New Jersey shows that colleges’ turnout rates increased by between 22 and 33 points between 2014 and 2018.
Some schools do choose to share their results. Rutgers University officials were happy to reveal theirs, which showed that close to 43% of students on the New Brunswick campus voted last year. That exceeded the national average and was almost three times greater than the 11% turnout rate there in 2014.
“These strong voting rates reflect larger national trends of increased political interest and engagement among young adults,” said Elizabeth C. Matto, director of the Center for Youth Political Participation at Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics and an associate research professor. “Here on this campus, this remarkable outcome can be attributed to the collaborative work of a hard-working and dedicated civic engagement coalition of campus administrators, faculty, and students and the commitment of the University to create a campus culture supportive of civic learning and engagement.”
Additionally, Rutgers’ voter registration rate increased from almost 66% in 2014 to close to 82% last year. At the same time, the national student registration rate rose from about 65% to more than 73%.
The national report states that the increase in student voting exceeded that of all voters of all ages nationwide: The voting rate for the general population increased by close to 14 percentage points between 2014 and 2018, while the turnout for college students rose by 21 points.
The institute’s report provides data on voting patterns for young adults, including breakdowns by age group, sex, race and ethnicity and by major of study, that is not readily available elsewhere.
The 55 percent overall turnout in 2018 was the highest for a midterm in at least 20 years. But, while New Jersey’s Division of Elections reports turnout figures, it does not give similar breakdowns.
What motivated students to vote?
A post-election survey by the institute asked what motivated students to go to the polls. It found “a number of topics that animated student involvement, including immigration, gun violence, President Trump, the environment, voter access, and local or regional campaigns and ballot issues,” according to the report.
Campuses also undertook efforts to register students and urge them to cast ballots. These included educating students on the mechanics of voting, political discussions, student issue activism and involvement by faculty across disciplines. Additionally, the institute said campus officials used earlier National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement reports to inform their actions to boost registration and turnout.
Eagleton established the Center for Youth Political Participation in 2017 to boost political learning and engagement. It created the RU Voting initiative to encourage Rutgers students to pay attention to politics, register to vote, and turn out on Election Day. The RU Voting website is a one-stop shop for all thing elections, including information about registering to vote, polling locations, how to vote by mail.
The Rutgers-New Brunswick College Avenue campus is also one of more than a dozen locations in New Jersey participating in National Voter Registration Day tomorrow. Hundreds of events are planned across the country to register new voters and build interest and excitement over upcoming November elections.
That would help in New Jersey, where this off-year election features state Assembly races at the top of the ticket. These typically low-interest contests draw an equally low turnout — in 2015, the last time Assembly races led the balloting, only 22% of about 5.4 million registered voters cast ballots.
Guessing at their future impact
It’s unclear what kind of impact student voters will have this year or in next year’s presidential election. Older adults still vote at higher rates than college students; even among college students, master’s and doctoral students and older adults enrolled in college are more apt to vote than undergraduates.
Matt Hale, a professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University, said it’s not enough to look at past voting patterns of young adults.
“It always seems to me that young people need something to vote for, instead of something to vote against,” he said. “Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and even to some extent Ronald Reagan all did comparatively well with young people because they all were like a shiny new toy and ‘different’ than your parent’s politicians. Who is that today? I am not sure the leading Democrats have that ‘new’ generational appeal. Trump certainly doesn’t. So while increased registration is important I am less convinced young people will actually come out to the polls.”
Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said the impact will depend on a number of factors.
“If you are looking at impact on the presidential races, the states with the highest proportion of college students in the voting age population are pretty solidly red or blue,” he said. “When you start calculating all that net effect into raw votes in races where races were close, then you might find an extremely limited impact on actual election results.”
Still, increased interest in politics and voter turnout by college students could affect the political process in several ways.
“Significantly higher college turnout could have an impact on forcing campaigns to address different issues and could have an impact on primaries,” Murray continued. He added that New Hampshire is the state with the highest proportion of college students. It also holds the first in the nation primary, following Iowa’s caucuses, and that “could have an impact on the Dem primary.”