Yesterday, on my way into the Campus Center for lunch, a group of students sitting at a table called out to ask if I was registered to vote. I replied that I had already mailed in my ballot and received confirmation that it had arrived. The student group was not advocating for a candidate or a party, just participation in democracy. They gave me an “I voted” pin and asked me to wear it to encourage students to do the same.
Last weekend, as part of Family Weekend, Nick Clark, Professor of Political Science, presented a session entitled, “Understanding Why People Vote and What is Going to Happen in the 2022 and 2024 Elections.” Nick shared a range scholarship on reasons why people do or don’t vote, issues that affect participation in and outcomes of American elections, and historical election results across midterm and presidential elections during the past six decades.
There were many families in attendance. They were deeply engaged in the presentation, and as it ended, a number of them praised Nick for his clarity and his non-partisan approach. They were clearly relieved and surprised that he did not share his leanings or favor any side. He responded to the latter by indicating that this is the tradition of his discipline in the classroom.
I was momentarily surprised by their surprise, but then remembered how much the press and many politicians accuse the academy of indoctrination. There are correlations between educational attainment and voting patterns, but that has been true for at least a century, and it has shifted from one side to another. Our faculty and their colleagues around the country strive to give their students the tools to be informed citizens, and they encourage them to participate in democracy, but that’s where it generally stops.
Susquehanna University has been engaged in a concerted effort to increase student participation and engagement in elections. The table at the Campus Center is an example of those efforts. A co-curricular effort called “Achieve, Lead, Vote” was another. It was especially focused on promoting student voter participation in the 2020 election.
Recently, I received the NSLVE (National Survey of Learning, Voting, and Engagement) report from IDHE (Institute for Democracy and Higher Education), which is run out of Tufts University. This report collects voter participation data for institutions of higher education around the country and analyzes those data across time. They also disaggregate the data to help institutions strategize ways to continuously improve voter participation among their students, and by extrapolation, their alumni.
These efforts have helped increase voter registration and voting rates by students across higher education. In 2014, the national undergraduate voting rate was 18%, in 2018 it was 39%, and in 2020 it was 68%.
Historically, Susquehanna had trailed the national participation rate with only a 7% voting rate in 2014. This climbed to 28% in 2018, a significant improvement, but still well behind national numbers.
That changed in the 2020 election. We went from trailing to leading. 75% of SU students voted in the 2020 election. It is one of the most dramatic improvements in the nation. I am grateful for the work of my colleagues from the faculty and staff who have helped students meaningfully engage in the democratic process, and I am proud of our students for exercising one of the greatest privileges of citizenship.