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Boston votes — so should its college students

We’ve launched Boston Votes, a network of students and administrators at Greater Boston schools dedicated to amplifying campus voter engagement and sharing best practices.

Craig F. Walker

With Election Day fast approaching, the coronavirus pandemic has thrust students enrolled at Boston-area universities into uncharted waters. Some have begun in-person classes, while others are signing into online classes from dormitories. Still others have been denied campus housing, and are signing in from across the country. These blurred residency lines complicate where and how students vote. And no matter where students study this fall, a weakened social community may dampen turnout.

The coronavirus outbreak threatens not only public health, but the social interactions that propel voter turnout everywhere, from sidewalks to senior centers. The pace of voter registrations plummeted nationally in the spring, with rates for 18- and 19-year-olds lagging behind data from November 2016. At universities, research demonstrates peer-to-peer engagement is a critical tool to help students overcome psychological barriers associated with voting.


Beyond internalized norms, students across the United States face legal hurdles: restrictive voter ID laws, shuttered early-voting sites, and gerrymandered campuses are obstacles for students who wish to vote locally. Those who attempt to vote by mail must endure drudgeries from strict signature match laws to state-specific eligibility criteria. Youth are also more likely to face information and resource deficits, contributing to a disproportionately high absentee ballot rejection rate. Many of our classmates and friends become overwhelmed and frustrated with these difficulties, and give up altogether.

These restrictions make standard touch points of engagement all the more important for students to learn state-specific information and prepare to vote. Traditional campus efforts are designed to engage peers at a one-to-one level, physically meeting in classrooms and engaging in student centers and other popular campus sites. Such steps have successfully propelled turnout across our three schools, but require adjustments as we and our neighboring institutions begin another socially distanced semester.


This is why we have launched Boston Votes, a network of students and administrators at Greater Boston schools dedicated to amplifying campus voter engagement and sharing best practices. In concert with nonprofit organizations, we aim to instill a culture of civic participation among Greater Boston students that extends far beyond November 2020 and covers federal, state, and local elections.

Whether our fall semesters began on grassy fields or dusty screens, opening days offered a unique opportunity to connect with every student. We recommend back-to-school efforts in the coming weeks that reintroduce students to a civically engaged campus, with administrators offering voter registration assistance and information on local elections. Faculty can nourish this voting culture through academic integration, creatively incorporating civics into every classroom.

Peer discussions are essential to make voting a social activity. As students shift their social lives online, student leaders can utilize virtual channels to establish a media presence and engage in direct civic conversations. Perhaps most critical, we ask every member school to develop a voting team composed of administrators, faculty, and students, to ensure that progress is collaborative and reproducible in years to come.

Although every vote matters — we are a stronger society when more voices are heard — there are unique reasons to promote student voting. Studies have shown voting is habit-forming. A commitment to help young students vote now secures a representational model decades down the line as youth become an ever-larger proportion of the electorate.


Additionally, students have unique perspectives on a number of issues — including gun violence, student debt, and climate change — but their voices are underrepresented in turnout. College students doubled their voting rate from 2014 to 2018, with 40 percent of eligible students casting ballots in the last midterm cycle. And this year, youth have stayed active, mobilizing campaigns and protesting at even higher rates than in 2018. Still, their voting rate has not caught up to the general electorate. As a result, issues that disproportionately affect students and youth are driven down the agenda. No matter our personal stances, we should all be concerned when any demographic is underrepresented in our democracy.

Given our status as a college hub, Boston has potential to not only tangibly impact student voting rates, but serve as a model for campus coalitions across the country in an effort to organize the nation’s most diverse group of eligible voters. As administrators develop new strategies to re-root students and restore community, civic engagement should be central to their efforts. No matter where we are located, or ultimately registered, our votes are Boston Votes. We’re grateful to have university leadership committed to campus voter engagement at our three schools, and look forward to further administrative support.


With support at 25 area schools, administrators at remaining universities can seize this opportunity to sign onto a set of common commitments that institutionalize efforts and prepare students for the November elections. Although we cannot reconvene in person this semester, we are optimistic our votes will count together, this Nov. 3, in the ballot box.

Ian Phipps is a college senior and MASSPIRG New Voters Project Coordinator at UMass Boston. Zachary Steigerwald Schnall is a college senior and director of college engagement at the Harvard Votes Challenge. Lidya Woldeyesus is a college junior and chair of JumboVote at Tufts University.