How College Campuses Are Trying to Tap Students' Voting Power

The University of Michigan has a long tradition of politically active students, dating back to the Vietnam War protests. That is why Edie Goldenberg, a political-science professor there, was shocked to learn the percentage of students at the school who cast ballots in the last midterm election: just 14 percent.

“It was a wake-up call,” Dr. Goldenberg said. “Nobody realized that so few students were turning out to vote.”

Dr. Goldenberg has now set a goal for this November’s elections of more than doubling student turnout. And the university itself is getting behind the effort by challenging its Big Ten football rivals to a competition to see which school can get more students to vote in the midterms.

College campuses are often seen as hotbeds of political engagement, with controversial speakers routinely kicking up loud protests. But abysmally low turnout among young people has long been a hallmark of American elections, particularly in midterm years. Data suggests that only 18 percent voted in 2014, compared with about 37 percent in the overall population.

Now a growing number of universities are using their institutional power to increase student turnout on their campuses, spurred by a desire to develop students into better citizens. And schools like the University of Michigan are armed with data showing them for the first time which kinds of students are voting and which are not, so they can target their efforts and measure which strategies work.

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