College students smashed previous voting records in 2020, casting ballots in record numbers and perhaps signaling a surge in civic engagement as Gen Z comes of age, according to a national college voting study published Thursday by Tufts University.
The percentage of college students who voted in the 2020 presidential election hit a record 66 percent, up 14 percentage points from 2016, a much greater increase than that among the general voting public over that period. That also brought the voting rate of college students nearly in line with the rest of the population.
Nancy Thomas, director of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts’ Tisch College of Civic Life, called the increase “quite stunning.”
“That’s a first for college students and an exponential jump from past elections,” she said in an interview ahead of the release of the study. “Candidates would be very smart to start focusing on communities of young people, and particularly college campuses.”
The increase was especially sharp among the youngest voters, ages 18 to 21, many of whom voted for the first time in last year’s presidential election. And the rise of a politically active Gen Z, whose oldest members are around 26, challenges the conventional wisdom that candidates need not target younger voters because they’re unreliable.
“This is just another indication that Gen Z is coming of age with real purpose,” said John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, who studies this youth cohort closely and will soon release a book about that generation’s political influence.
“They share the progressive values of millennials, but at this stage, they’ve proven to be an even more critical voting bloc than millennials were at this time, to anyone seeking office, local, state, or national,” he said.
The Tufts study, published after each presidential and midterm election and funded by philanthropy, is the nation’s largest examination of college and university student voting and uses anonymized student records combined with publicly available voting records. A wide variety of institutions voluntarily participate, and this year’s report examined 1,051 campuses from across all 50 states.
The study captures the number of students who vote, not whom they voted for. Other research performed by Tufts, focused on all young people ages 18 to 29, found that approximately 61 percent voted for Joe Biden and 37 percent voted for Donald Trump.
The average age of college students in the study was 24; half were between 18 and 21. Women made up 57 percent of the voters studied, roughly equal to their representation in higher education overall. Slightly more than half were white.
For many young people, 2020 was their first chance to weigh in on Trump, whose presidency dominated their formative years.
Thomas, the center director, said she believes many young people were also motivated by issues they care deeply about, including climate change and racial justice.
“The agonizing death of George Floyd spurred this generation to action in ways that I don’t think we’d seen before,” she said.
The high turnout was also the result of a Herculean get-out-the-vote effort across campuses, she said. In a preface to the study, Thomas described how staff at the Tufts center grew worried during the 2020 primaries, as they saw efforts to restrict voting by people of color and students, such as through residency requirements or limiting polling locations.
As the fall 2020 semester began, the center called on college and university presidents and others on campuses to intervene and ensure their students had access to voting. Typical events such as rallies, registration drives, and debates were curtailed by the pandemic, making it even more challenging. The report includes anecdotes of efforts on campuses in San Diego, New Orleans, Charlottesville, Va., and Topeka, Kan., to increase student turnout.
Perhaps reflecting the success of such efforts, the report found a striking increase in the share of students registered to vote who actually cast ballots. In 2020, 80 percent of students who were registered cast a ballot, an 11-point increase from 2016.
The report also examined racial breakdowns of student voters. It found that voting among Asian American students jumped dramatically. Although turnout among this group was still relatively low compared to other groups, it rose 17 percentage points from 2016, according to the study.
Among other findings about student voters:
- Voting among Black women, who consistently turn out in high numbers, increased in 2020, though only slightly compared to the rise among other demographic groups.
- Voting at Historically Black colleges and universities rose 13 percent, as well as at institutions with significant proportions of Hispanic students.
- Voting among multiracial men and white men increased 16 to 17 percentage points.
- Voting at urban and suburban schools increased at higher rates than at rural schools.
One major question on the minds of experts and students engaged in civic activism is whether the country will see an enduring shift in the voting habits of young people.
Some argue the change will be lasting. Gen Z grew up in an era where information is readily available and politics in this country is historically fraught. Many see issues such as gun violence and climate change as existential threats, with activism as the only way to secure a better future.
But Kevin Ballen, a senior at Harvard College and leader of the Harvard Votes Challenge initiative, said his generation’s propensity to be engaged in politics isn’t enough to maintain strong turnout; election systems still need to change to make voting easier, he said.
Last year, Ballen’s organization, which aims to promote civic engagement, placed voter registration forms, absentee ballot request forms, and stamps in mailboxes of all on-campus Harvard students from states without online processes.
“We have to make the system better if we want people to keep showing up,” he said.
The unique circumstances of the 2020 election, which took place amid a global pandemic, made voting easier for some college students, through relaxed rules for mail-in ballots and early voting. But other students, such as those attending school remotely and living in states that restricted access, may have had trouble getting to the polls.
Harrison Feinman, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania and director of a student-run program called Penn Leads the Vote, said the outcome was heartening, after all the work he and others did to encourage students to vote.
Feinman said the high turnout helped students develop habits that will carry into the future. Many young people last year served as poll workers, as some older poll workers worried about contracting the virus. That provided an in-depth education, quickly turning young people into voting experts.
“People are finally starting to understand about the importance of voting and how that is a form of activism,” he said.