Voter turnout among University of Michigan college students jumped to 78 percent in the November 2020 election, according to a report released by the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University.
Up 18 percentage points from 60 percent in 2016, U-M student turnout far outpaced that of all Americans, which jumped 6 percentage points from 61 percent to 67 percent, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. It also exceeded the 66 percent average voter turnout across 1,200 college campuses included in the study.
Edie Goldenberg, professor of public policy in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and professor of political science in LSA, served as a key adviser for Turn Up Turnout, a nonpartisan, student-led, get-out-the-vote initiative. In spring 2020, Goldenberg hoped for a 75 percent turnout rate, but predicted closer to 65 percent.
“To surpass our aspirational target in the middle of a pandemic is both surprising and exciting,” Goldenberg said. “This was an all-campus effort. Our student volunteers worked very hard.
“I am grateful for the faculty, staff and university leaders who pulled together to help students get the information they needed in order to vote and have their voices heard. I’m also grateful to our city clerk, who was a wonderful partner and a real hero in the face of daunting health challenges in 2020.”
Additional findings from the IDHE’s National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement about U-M student voting:
- U-M student voter registration rates increased 4 percentage points from 84 percent in 2016 to 88 percent in 2020.
- More U-M students followed through in voting. The percentage of registered students who voted increased from more than 71 percent to 88 percent.
- How students voted changed significantly between 2016 and 2020. Eighty-one percent of U-M students did not vote in person, an increase by 50 percentage points. In-person voting on Election Day fell by 48 percentage points to 15 percent.
- Voting rates increased for all U-M students, class years, education level and fields of study.
Josiah Walker, who served as president of Turn Up Turnout during the 2020 election, attributed turnout success to the collaborative efforts among student organizations, university units, elected officials and nonprofit and corporate leaders.
“We synthesized local, state and federal election laws, executed a dynamic voter-engagement plan, and, most importantly, delivered groundbreaking student voting results,” he said. “Our ability to think and learn from past experiences made it possible for us to be successful in the face of the ever-changing voter registration laws and the pandemic.
“With the state of Michigan being a swing state and Gen Z being one of its largest voting blocs, University of Michigan students played a key role in the 2020 election and beyond. Each year keeps getting better.”
Voter turnout reflects nonpartisan, campuswide efforts to increase voter education, registration and engagement. In addition to Turn Up Turnout, U-M once again participated in the Big Ten Voting Challenge, a collaboration initiated by President Mark Schlissel and his presidential colleagues in 2017 to increase voter registration and turnout across Big Ten schools. The Ginsberg Center provides leadership to the campus and conference efforts.
“It is really gratifying to see U-M’s registration and voting rates for 2020, which are up across the board,” said Dave Waterhouse, interim co-director of the Ginsberg Center. “A lot of folks on our campus have worked hard to make that happen. The work to involve students in our democracy at all levels, and throughout the year, will continue as we build on the momentum of the 2020 election season. This work matters, now more than ever.”
The campus coalition was broadened and strengthened to make student voting more accessible in 2020. In partnership with City Clerk Jacqueline Beaudry, the Creative Campus Voting Project — co-led by Stephanie Rowden and Hannah Smotrich, associate professors in the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design — designed the Ann Arbor City Clerk’s Satellite Office at the U-M Museum of Art. The project facilitated the registration of 5,412 voters and the collection of 8,501 ballots.
Plans for 2022 include another satellite office collaboration with the museum and a new pop-up office in the Duderstadt Gallery on North Campus.
Students also participated in the university’s Democracy & Debate Theme Semester, co-chaired by Ford School Dean Michael Barr and then-Vice President for Government Affairs Cynthia Wilbanks. It included an array of programming, courses, speakers and other opportunities for learning. Millions of users engaged online during the semester, and the educational initiative continues in 2021-22.
The Democracy & Debate work is co-chaired by Barr and LSA Dean Anne Curzan.