From the Classroom to the Polls: The Importance of Student Voting
As the 2020 presidential election comes closer, the stakes are especially high to get out the vote. While voter turnout in the 2018 midterms hit a 50-year high, only 53% of eligible citizens voted. That means our democracy is only functioning at half-capacity.
The problem is multifaceted. Many would-be voters are deterred by systematic roadblocks to the ballot box: state voter identification laws, limited access to the polls or to transportation, long waiting lines at many polling places — all of which disproportionately affect low-income voters and voters of color. Despite the historically high voter turnout in 2018, there was a participation gap of 6 percentage points for Black voters and 17 percentage points for Latino voters — a clear indication of voter exclusion, especially when so many of the rights of Blacks and Latinos are on the line. And only 28% of Americans aged 18 to 24 voted in 2018, which means that youth voices like mine are not being counted either.
Last election cycle, I served as the election engagement director of Iowa Campus Compact. In this position, I worked with students, faculty, and staff at Iowa’s colleges to build campus-wide voter engagement programs. I also spoke with potential student voters across Iowa about issues that mattered to them — such as speed camera laws, water quality, skyrocketing rent, and the minimum wage. Others told me about their experiences with immigration visas, discriminatory policing, student loan default, and underfunded public schools. A common theme emerged: At their root, all issues — including the pollution of the air we breathe, how much we pay in taxes, our personal and community safety, access to healthcare, and more — stem from policy decisions made by people that we elect to office.
I remember meeting an older student named Mohammed at the University of Iowa on National Voter Registration Day. As I showed him how to register, Mohammed told me he was a Sudanese refugee, a survivor of years of violence and authoritarianism who had never experienced a legitimate election. Mohammed had become a U.S. citizen the previous summer, which made him eligible to vote for the first time in the November 2018 midterms. Enrolled in the international studies program, Mohammed was learning to formulate his own beliefs and act on them.
After Mohammed signed his voter registration form, he told me, “I get to vote.” For many first-time voters like Mohammed, casting a ballot is a moment of empowerment and a symbol of freedom — a chance to influence the policies affecting their lives.
If we’re going to fix underrepresentation in our elections by November 2020, let’s start by doing a few things on the local level to make voting easier:
- Petition your local election administrator for more satellite locations, and encourage legislators to expand early and absentee voting.
- Provide rides and offer free public transportation to the polls on Election Day by partnering with local organizations and businesses.
- Work with your campus student government or student life office to build a school-specific voting campaign that reaches as many students as possible.
- Make voting information widely available.
- If your state has voter identification laws, push for laws that allow student IDs and same-day registration.
- Engage your peers in conversations about the importance of participating in democracy.
Samantha Bayne is a senior at Drake University studying politics and philosophy, and was the 2019 summer government affairs intern. Previously, she worked for Iowa Campus Compact as their election engagement director, a position funded through a partnership with Campus Election Engagement Project.