College students across the 14 member institutions of the Big Ten Conference voted in record numbers during the 2018 midterm elections following a challenge put forth by the presidents of their institutions.

At the University of Michigan, student voter turnout tripled in 2018 when compared with 2014, increasing from 14 percent to 41 percent.

Launched in 2017, the Big Ten Voting Challenge is a nonpartisan initiative created to spur civic engagement and encourage more students across the Big Ten to head to the polls on Election Day. The challenge compared voter turnout for the 2014 and 2018 midterm elections.

An estimated 7.5 million students across the country voted in 2018 midterms, according to data from the National Study of Learning, Voting and Student Engagement at Tufts University.

The average student voting rate across the Big Ten Conference spiked to 43 percent, surpassing the national average student voting rate of 40 percent, and more than double the national student voting rate of 19 percent in 2014.

As a result of the increased voter turnout, the 14 presidents across the Big Ten Conference have agreed to continue the challenge for the 2020 presidential election.

“This is an incredible example of the power of our students to increase student representation at the polls and use their voice to help shape our collective future. Voting in elections gives our students a voice in the democratic process and in the decisions that affect local, state, and national issues,” says a letter signed by all Big Ten university presidents and chancellors.

Sponsored by President Mark Schlissel and led by the Ginsberg Center, the challenge awards two campuses for their student voting efforts: greatest student voter turnout and most improved turnout between 2014 and 2018.

The University of Minnesota led the conference with the greatest overall turnout of student voters at 59 percent, up 29 percentage points from nearly 30 percent in 2014.

Student voting efforts at Minnesota in 2018 included:

  • Easy online voter registration that allowed students to register and request absentee ballots on any device and from any location. This was paired with an on-campus early voting location.
  • Strong collaboration with the student government body, as well as university departments, student groups and various student governance organizations.
  • Creation of a robust, promotional campaign, “Be a Voter,” which catered to reach the specific audience on the Twin Cities campus. 

Rutgers University achieved the most improved student voter turnout between 2014 and 2018 with a 31 percentage point increase to 43 percent in 2018, up from 12 percent in 2014.

Student voting efforts at Rutgers in 2018 included:

  • Creation of the Rutgers University Civic Engagement Coalition to coordinate efforts among campus units and groups.
  • Leveraging the existing university initiative, “RU Voting,” to encourage and support student voting and registration, and engage students to play an active role.
  • Organizing a campuswide civic engagement summit, a civic action plan and calendar, and numerous voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts.

The winners were presented trophies by the Ginsberg Center at the “ALL IN Challenge Awards Ceremony” on Nov. 12 in Washington, D.C. The ceremony honors outstanding contributions to improving college democratic engagement.

2018 student voting efforts at U-M’s Ann Arbor campus included:

  • A campuswide collaboration among the Ginsberg Center, Turn Up Turnout, Central Student Government, all 19 schools and colleges, athletics and many other student organizations and units across campus to promote student voter engagement.
  • Registering incoming freshmen and transfer students during orientation sessions via a partnership with the Office of New Student Programs.
  • Organizing a Voter Registration Week in the final week of September, to coincide with National Voter Registration Day.

U-M created the Big Ten Voting Challenge Presidential Internship using the $10,000 that Schlissel pledged in 2017, and in summer 2019 offered the first internship working within Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office in Lansing. An additional internship will be offered in the summer of 2020.

For the 2020 challenge, the presidents across the Big Ten Conference have again each pledged $10,000 to be used on their respective campus to promote student public engagement.

After the 2020 election, trophies will go to two universities — the one with the highest eligible voter turnout and the one with the most improved turnout compared to 2016.

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