Voter turnout is abysmally poor," says Joe Schwarz, a Ford School lecturer and former U.S. Congressional representative (R-MI-7). "In general elections, you're lucky to get 50 to 60 percent of eligible voters—that just shows an embarrassing level of ennui on the part of the electorate."
In recent midterm elections, the numbers are even worse. National turnout has hovered between 30 to 40 percent. While 43 percent of Michiganders voted during the 2014 midterms, University of Michigan student turnout was closer to 14 percent.
Low participation of young voters is nothing new, but it is troubling. Some worry about the integrity of democratic institutions if many Americans, particularly young Americans, tune out, rather than turn out for, future elections.
What's a university to do about low student turnout?
During the Presidential election last fall, Professor Edie Goldenberg was teaching research methods to University of Michigan undergraduates in Washington, DC.
Students in the course supported a variety of presidential candidates—mainly Clinton, Sanders, or Trump. Predictably, some were happy with the election's outcome while others were not. What Goldenberg didn't expect was how many students wanted to disengage from the political process altogether.
"One student said, I don't think I'm ever voting again," she says. "A number of those who supported Bernie Sanders were so disappointed that he didn't get the nomination that they stayed home [on Election Day]."
These responses troubled Goldenberg, particularly because college students are already significantly less likely to go to the polls and vote. Goldenberg places a portion of the blame on educators who, she says, "haven't done enough to convey the importance of electoral participation, preferably informed electoral participation, for a healthy democratic system."
In fact, says Goldenberg, colleges aren't just morally obligated to encourage voter registration and thus, at least implicitly, participation—it's a federal mandate in the Higher Education Act Amendment of 1998, which requires institutions to make good faith efforts to distribute voter registration forms to all students.
So when political scientist and U-M alumnus Ken Goldstein (MA '93, PhD '96) suggested to Goldenberg that it might be good to engage students' competitive spirit to boost electoral participation, she took note. A former dean and administrator, Goldenberg knew competitions had been successful in encouraging blood drives and canned food donations. So she pitched the concept to University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel, he pitched it to Big Ten colleagues, and within a few weeks, the Big Ten Voting Challenge was born.
Getting students to turn up and turn out for the challenge
The Big Ten Voting Challenge is a non-partisan effort to increase student turnout in elections. Each member of the Big Ten conference will compete for two trophies, one recognizing the school with the highest percentage of eligible voter turnout and another for the most improved percentage of turnout in the upcoming 2018 midterm.
At Michigan, this effort will be spearheaded by the Ginsberg Center with support from Turn Up Turnout (TUT), a non-partisan group Goldenberg founded to reverse the decline of student voter participation. TUT members include Ford School faculty Mary Corcoran and John Chamberlin, and Nadine Jawad (BA '18), U-M's student body vice president, a Ford School student, a Truman Scholar, and a newly selected Rhodes Scholar.
"Students have a lot on the line," Jawad says. "When we don't get involved civically, we are handing off our voice on the issues that matter to students specifically, whether it's financial aid, college affordability, or sexual assault policies."
TUT will encourage students to use TurboVote, a website that lets them register at either their home or Ann Arbor address, sends reminders about upcoming elections, and helps people with absentee ballot applications.
Voter challenges and the policies designed to overcome them
John Chamberlin and Edie Goldenberg, who are leading an independent study course on the right to vote in Michigan, see the TurboVote platform as a way to address some of the obstacles students face in elections.
"TurboVote will make registration easy and help students get into the habit of voting," says Chamberlin, who believes some students don't vote because they don't know where to go, or they don't know what the issues are, particularly in local elections.
But Chamberlin believes that there are structural barriers to voting, as well. "In our course, we're examining policies that make voting easier—or more difficult—for various groups, including students, the poor, the elderly, and people of color."
Among the policies students will be studying are expanding opportunities to cast absentee ballots, offering early voting, increasing registration opportunities through same-day or automatic registration, and providing early registration for high school students.
Tackling voting barriers in Michigan, and at U-M
"Michigan ranks pretty low among the states in terms of ease of voting," says Ford School lecturer and director of the Michigan ACLU Kary Moss about the current state of electoral policy. And, the literal electoral machinery presents challenges to voters as well.
"In many districts," she says, "machines break, the lines are long, and it tends to be in minority districts." Moss believes that "a good case can be made that it suppresses the vote in those areas."
In fact, problems related to structural voting challenges are highlighted in research recently conducted by the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy.
In the most recent Michigan Public Policy Survey, Debra Horner and Tom Ivacko (MPP '93) found that, among the state's largest cities and townships, 24 percent of responsive local officials report problems with equipment failures and 18 percent report long wait times for voters on Election Day, compared to 13 percent and 1 percent in Michigan's smallest jurisdictions. Additionally, they found that 48 percent of officials in large jurisdictions had a difficult time recruiting enough poll workers, compared to 27 percent in small ones
And the state's largest jurisdictions, with 30,000-plus residents, are indeed more diverse than its smallest ones.
While Ivacko cautions that it's difficult to pinpoint these challenges as intentional voter suppression, he believes they're indicative of a larger problem--diminishing support for public goods across the state.
"In Michigan, there has a been a lack of investment in the public sector itself for a long time," says Ivacko. "This shows up in a wide range of public services, including elections." Ivacko hopes data from their survey will help Michigan's state and local leaders expand voting opportunities and improve the electoral process across the state.
"The right to vote lets people decide the shape their government will take," says Ivacko. "And if we believe this matters, we should want as many people as possible to vote. Period."
In the meantime, Goldenberg and others at U-M will focus on getting students to the polls, and "creating the expectation that all Michigan students who are eligible to vote will educate themselves and participate in our democracy."
And so, the real challenge isn't seeing which university registers more student voters—it's having students accept the responsibility that comes with citizenship.
--Story by Jackson Voss (MPP '18)
Below is a formatted version of this article from State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School. View the entire Fall 2017 State & Hill.