Student voter turnout has been trending up: In 2020, students turned out at almost exactly the same rate as the overall population.

In a new analysis, Maricruz Ariana Osorio (Assistant Professor of Global Studies at Bentley University) and Melissa R. Michelson (Professor of Political Science at Menlo College) unpack the reasons behind higher voter turnout among college students. 

 

One reason for the jump is the increase in voter engagement initiatives conducted by colleges. Here are our top takeaways about the concrete steps institutions can take to increase registration and turnout rates — and the research-backed reasons behind them:


 

In-Class Presentations

Brief presentations by professors or student representatives are shown to increase registration by 6 percentage points and turnout by 2.6 percentage points. 

 

This strategy brings together two effective practices:

 

First, you’re reaching students where they already are: Not every student is going to swing by your voter registration event or stop by your table on the quad – especially with the swing to more remote and hybrid learning.

 

But (almost!) all students will show up to their classes, making it the most reliable place to get in front of them with voting readiness information.

 

Reaching students through trusted messengers: Students tend to hold faculty members in high regard: When someone you respect makes time to share voting information, that signals that it’s important; you’re more likely to pay attention. 

 

Make this strategy even more effective by carving out a few minutes for students to act on what they’re hearing. This can look like: Passing out and collecting voter registration forms; displaying a QR code that links to online information portals; or prompting students to opt into digital plan-making tools or election reminder services.

 

Being able to register or make a voting plan in the moment reduces the likelihood of planning to do it later, then forgetting to come back to it. 


 

Campus-Wide Emails

It’s no small feat to get campus leadership to send an institution-wide email, which often needs to go through layers of approvals. But, it pays off.

Students receiving an email from their school with a link to an online voter registration portal are 1.2 percentage points more likely to register to vote and 0.5 points more likely to vote. These are small but powerful effects for a single email message. 

 

Similar to in-class presentations, the effectiveness of campus-wide emails is that they come from a trusted messenger. 

 

In a climate where polarizing rhetoric and fears of misinformation can cause would-be voters to recoil, you’re most likely to trust official communications from the source who is also communicating with you about academics, housing and health.

 

While emails have low open end engagement rates, especially for this generation of college students, the benefit of sharing through this channel is its longevity: You can always return to your inbox for the key information and links — rather than potentially get overwhelmed by your Google search results.


 

Spillover Effects

While not an explicit strategy, “spillover effects” offer another benefit to institutionalized voter engagement. Whenyou reach individual students directly, the impact doesn’t stop there. Those students also have influence on their peers. 

 

In one study, when students were asked to encourage their roommates to register, those students who were already registered themselves were 8-9 % percentage points more likely to do so. Because peers are a more effective messenger than anyone else, this increases the impact of each touchpoint.

 


 

Want to learn more about how you can use behavioral science to help voters decrease friction and increase follow through? We’d love to chat! Learn more about Motivote or say hi at hello@motivote.us