TOPEKA, Kansas — The road to democracy is paved in donuts.
At least that’s the case if you dropped by Washburn University’s Memorial Union for lunch on a recent afternoon, followed the “free donuts” sign and blaring rock music down to the lower level, where there were not just boxes of glazed temptation, but smiling faces holding out electronic tablets.
Are you registered to vote, they wondered. If not, it takes just a few minutes.
For most of the curious students dropping by on National Voter Registration Day, the answer was “yes.” As of the 2018 midterm elections, three in four students at Washburn were registered voters. Significantly fewer joined the voter rolls in time for the 2014 midterms.
But the most dramatic difference came at the ballot box: 46% of Washburn students voted in 2018, up 17 percentage points from four years earlier.
Nationwide and in Kansas, new research from the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education and the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) reveals just how much the 2018 midterms energized young people.
Overall, voter turnout doubled at the 1,000 colleges tracked. The University of Kansas, Kansas State University, Emporia State University and Johnson County Community College saw jumps in turnout of more than 20 percentage points.
That could affect turnout in 2020 and beyond, because campaigns will be eager for the new voters’ support.
“The biggest predictor of whether people vote or not is whether somebody reaches out to you,” said CIRCLE director Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, whose organization and the institute are both housed at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. “The biggest predictor of whether somebody reaches out to you is whether you voted before.”
That feedback loop means young people often get ignored until they’ve cast their first ballot.
The college surge
Anita Austin has returned repeatedly to her former college since last year, coaxing Washburn students to talk voter registration over pizza or sweets. Her message? Government responds to people who vote.
“We always complain about government meeting the needs of a select few,” said Austin, program director at Loud Light, a small (full-time staff of two) but active Topeka nonprofit group created in 2015 that coordinates registration drives across the state. “But those are also the folks who are very engaged in the government process.”
Washburn nursing student Jacqueline Solis got similar messages from her grandparents, who encouraged her to register. She voted last year and plans to again next year.
“Even if it’s just one vote,” Solis said, “I think it can make a big change.”
All 17 Kansas colleges that let Tufts researchers calculate voter turnout on their campuses saw higher numbers in 2018 than the 2014 midterms.
Austin thinks old-fashioned shoe leather and modern-day electronics combined to help boost numbers on Election Day in 2018. Volunteers, often students and armed with tablets, put in long hours chatting up passersby in bustling student unions.
At the same time, ksvotes.org had come online. The nongovernmental site spearheaded by Loud Light and former Google vice president and former Democratic secretary of state candidate Brian McClendon made it easier for people to register online.
“In a couple months’ span, we registered almost 3,000 students,” Austin recalled.
That summer, then-Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach also lost a landmark federal trial, ensuring the state couldn’t demand to see passports, birth certificates or similar paperwork from registrants. The judge said what was then the strictest voter registration rule in the country was unconstitutional and illegal. (Kansas is appealing the case.)
Nationally, a Tufts survey found concerns about a range of issues fueled young voter turnout: the environment, gun violence, opinions about President Donald Trump and more. Plus, as the 2018 election approached, tightly contested and sometimes polarized races for Kansas governor and the state’s congressional seats may have driven up interest among young voters.
But even with the 2018 surge, college student turnout was around 40%, compared to 50% of the general population.
‘Interest begets interest’
Half of Emporia State’s students cast ballots — the highest among Kansas public universities that work with Tufts.
The university worked hard to get to that level of participation, economics professor Rob Catlett said.
Fifteen years ago, he said, the political parties in Kansas estimated fewer than 1 in 10 Emporia students had registered to vote. (Back then, Tufts didn’t calculate such figures for schools, so Catlett didn’t have hard numbers.) He challenged his students to change that, and by the time the 2004 election approached, they were delivering boxes upon boxes of registration forms to the county clerk.
“A dramatic change,” he recalled, but one that faculty and students had to work to maintain as each college class graduated and new students arrived.
As of last year, 80 percent of Emporia State students had signed up to vote, but no one’s declaring victory.
“We’ve got challenges,” Catlett said. “We need to convert more of those registered voters into actual voters.”
His students are optimistic, and say voting has become part of the campus culture.
“Interest begets interest,” said Jonathan Norris, a senior who registered on campus last year. “When you have students taking more and more of a role … there’s kind of an implicit social pressure for other people to become involved.”
That spirit caught up Miranda Veesart, a sophomore and libertarian who said she felt unmotivated to vote before arriving at college.
“I didn’t really see the point … just because, you know, probably never going to see a libertarian representing me,” she said. Now she’s encouraging her friends to vote in the Nov. 5 elections. “We all hold a stake in who is representing us.”
What to expect in 2020
Washburn student Jessica Galvin has voted before and plans to again. She suspects some young people struggle to see how elections affect them, since many issues on the minds of older voters don’t apply to them yet.
“A lot of us don’t get jobs till we’re older,” Galvin said. “A lot of us don’t have to worry about taxes and stuff like that — Medicare, social security. It’s just something we think of as an adult thing.”
With Trump up for re-election, that could drive young voters back to the polls in 2020.
“I need to vote for someone I think is going to beat Donald Trump,” said Caleb Soliday, a Washburn political science major who is gay. Soliday worries about Trump’s stances on everything from LGBTQ issues to higher education. “I'm so frankly scared that within one tweet (by Trump), I can have my rights taken away.”
Washburn political science professor Bob Beatty said the concern that new voters will check out again is fueling the tug-of-war among Democrats over whether to nominate former Vice President Joe Biden or someone more likely to fire up younger generations with progressive messages or better representation for women and people of color.
Voters sent a record number of women and people of color to Congress in 2018, though both groups remain significantly underrepresented there. Kansans elected their third female governor and first Native American congresswoman.
Young voters aren’t a monolith, but they’re more likely to vote Democrat. That means Democratic candidates will hope to draw them back to the polls in droves in 2020, but Beatty argued strong turnout is far from a given.
“Campaigns will rue the day that they take (young voters) for granted,” he said. “To be honest, you can sort of take older voters for granted. Those over-50 voters, boy, I mean, they show up."
And for those concerned too many young people still don’t vote, Kawashima-Ginsberg sees high school as “the most neglected opportunity” to teach the importance. About 1 in 5 18- and 19-year-olds voted in 2018, her research shows, and those still in high school or not in school at all are less likely to vote than those at college.
“A lot of efforts are going into college,” she said. “Not all young people go to college.”
Most people under the age of 30 in the U.S. right now don’t have college degrees.
Some Kansas schools help students register to vote. In Johnson County, for example, the local election office takes its voting machines to schools for student body elections, teaches students to run them, and registers voters all at once.
“We have one last shot with our high school kids,” Republican-appointed Johnson County Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker said, to “teach them the importance of civic engagement and voting.”
Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health and education for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @Celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.
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