“Data-driven” is a term we hear a lot. But what does it actually mean for your voter engagement programming? For higher ed leaders, the information you have about past student registration and turnout rates is a powerful tool for making the best use of limited resources – and making the biggest impact on your community.
The Challenges of Collecting Student Voting Data
An adage by business management guru Peter Drucker goes: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” And, historically, measuring voting engagement in this space has been tough.
It’s pretty easy to measure turnout at a population level because whether or not you voted (but not who you voted for) is public record. You can look at a particular district and see what percentage of eligible voters cast their ballot.
With higher ed, there’s a complicating twist: Where you go to school is not necessarily where you vote. Some students live on campus, but choose to register and vote at home. Others choose to vote where they live during the academic year.
This means, historically, college were in the dark about what percentage of students were registering and voting. Some tried surveys and self-reporting, but there was no cohesive way to measure participation.
Enter the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE), founded in 2012 to fill in that gap. Using data that is anonymized to protect student privacy, NSLVE matches student enrollment records with public voting files to create a clear picture of voting rates.
Over 1200 campuses now participate in the study, which provides institution-level data on student participation rates, broken down by segments like field of study, age and race/ethnicity. It answers questions like, “do Humanities majors vote at higher rates than Business students?” and “How does turnout for seniors compare to the freshman class?”
“What NSLVE did was cleared out a lot of assumptions – it’s based on actual behaviors,” explains Adam Gismondi, the Director of Impact at Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy & Higher Education (IDHE), which leads NSLVE.
This is how data opens the door for solutions.
Data as a Flashlight: What’s Really Happening?
One way that leaders can use data is to surface and bridge equity gaps.
Bernard Fraga is a Political Scientist at Indiana University whose book, The Turnout Gap, looks at race-based disparities in democratic participation. Minority turnout is about 20 percentage points lower than white turnout nationally, with a gap twice as large in some states.
If we can’t see these disparities, we can’t work to improve them.
Gismondi describes that, in the pre-NSLVE era, it was easy for leaders to assume their community had civic engagement because there was no evidence otherwise. With objective metrics, it’s tougher to deny what’s really happening.
Putting Data to Work: Bridging Gaps
One way schools can put this data into action is to identify the pockets of their community where engagement is lowest. It’s likely these groups aren’t being supported in a way that resonates – or perhaps not at all.
You might team up with race/ethnicity-based affinity groups as partners for voter outreach. Affinity groups are well-positioned to meet students where they are and serve as trusted messengers.
Data can also be used to point to and address other types of disparities, such as by academic major/program.
For example, research shows STEM students have lower participation rates than other fields of study. (Business and Health rank near STEM at the bottom, while Social Sciences and Humanities students a bit higher. Education is at the top.)
Armed with this type of data, program organizers can reach out to STEM faculty to ask them to support direct outreach, such as hosting a brief presentation during class. They can also work together to remove community-specific barriers to voting – such as not scheduling exams or lengthy lab sessions on Election Day, freeing up time for students to go to the polls.
Putting Data to Work: Resource Allocation
Another way for program leaders to leverage data is when making the case for more resources.
As Gismondi notes, “This work is too often a labor of love and not part of someone’s job description — or it’s 10th down their list.”
As a result, teams tasked with campus voter engagement very rarely have the resources they need – which leads to less effective outreach.
Backing up a budget request with cold hard numbers can make a difference, especially when tied to an institutional priority.
Top Tips: Data-Driven Strategies
- Pick a starting place. Identify campus communities with lower participation rates, and start your outreach there. It’s the lowest-hanging fruit for improvement and the best use of your limited resources. Build partnerships with the best messengers for those groups. Think: Professors in fields of study or departments; coaches or advisors; and affinity groups for racial/ethnic identity communities.
- Enlist others with clear goals. Build momentum by setting concrete goals for your community to strive for. Maybe it’s a 10% increase in participation over your rates last election cycle, or performing above the national average. You can even get competitive around who will achieve the highest participation rates. Remember to keep it positive, rather than punitive – relative goals can be more motivational than absolute ones because they celebrate growth in the right direction.