Young Voters Are the Oxygen That Keeps Democracy Alive

By Isabella Shaffer-Jaffery

Young people’s voices can change the tide of an election. Exuberant, idealistic and confident, college-age students can be credited for radicalizing the views of establishment voters several times over the past century. College students’ reaction to the Vietnam War is an obvious example, but more recently, young people were moved to get out and vote predominantly for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primaries. Senator Sanders promised to do many things that appealed to his millennial voters; debt-free college and a $15 minimum wage were integral issues to his platform. Although a very visible pro-Bernie movement swept the nation, Sanders failed to clinch the Democratic nomination.

This may be in part due to the fact that fewer than fifty percent of college students voted in the 2016 presidential election, and likely even fewer voted in the primaries. Despite having a candidate that specifically appealed to young people and 2016 being a dramatic and well-publicized election, student voter turnout was low overall for the country and fairly dismal at certain colleges. While this data easily fits with the picture of millennials as lazy and entitled, the full story is much more complicated.

Many college students care deeply about the issues at stake in local, state and federal elections, but are not able to vote in the state in which they attend college. This can be due to complicated voter ID requirements, hostile local communities, or changes to the time period in which registration and voting is available. Many students assume that they can show a student ID to vote in their school’s state, but often an in-state driver’s license or utility bill is necessary to show proof of residency, and the likelihood that students have either is slim.

Another problem is that the communities or states that these schools are in can have a very different social makeup from those who attend the school. Local residents feel that the students are not really connected to the community, and vote without reaping the long-term consequences relating to the students. New Hampshire and Maine are among the states who are actively working to suppress students’ votes through restrictive rules about residency that often require the registration of vehicles or procurement of residence confirmation from their schools.

Although states are working against the students who reside there, college administrations are sticking up for their students, with registration drives, incentives designed just for college students, and perhaps most effectively, a competition between schools. The Big Ten Voting Challenge is a competition between universities in the Big Ten conference to see which school can register the most students to vote and then actually get those students out to the polls. With a majority of the schools in the Big Ten conference having thirty thousand students or more, this tactic is sure to reach a large amount of potential youth voters and could influence elections significantly.

I know from personal experience how hard these schools are working to increase youth engagement in elections. I attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and upon receiving my student identification card, I was encouraged to sign up for a voter ID card that would allow me to vote in Wisconsin. I get emails and informational brochures from the university about where and when to vote. However, rarely does my school reiterate why voting is so important. Even if a college student is politically invested and wishes to vote, the local regulations may cause such delays that it seems easier to not vote at all. This is where other students come in.

Seeing fellow students manning the polls, starting voter registration drives or working to change legislation that limits youth voting is encouraging and invigorating. Knowing that people my own age care about issues that affect all of us, no matter our age, has inspired me in the past to volunteer for candidates I believe in and convince other students to register to vote. Political engagement is becoming cool among millennials, and if students and schools work together to give young people the resources they need to enact the change they want, a new generation of activists will be born sooner than ever.


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Stockman, F. (2018, March 3). How College Campuses Are Trying to Tap Students’ Voting Power. New York Times. Retrieved from