The midterms are over. Did college students turn out?

November 14, 2018


With her citizenship status hardly two years old, Bianca Cortes voted not only because she finally could, but she is “really not happy with the way the government is at the moment.”


“To be honest, it’s the president,” Cortes, a third-year student from Chile said when pushed to speak on what prompted her dissatisfaction.


In an election cycle historically in the peripheral of younger voters, Cortes was not alone. The 2018 midterm elections prompted 31 percent of  eligible voters ages 18 to 29 to cast a ballot according to an estimate released by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University.


This figure was up at least 10 percent from the last midterms, and an overall increase for a non-presidential year voting cycle; CIRCLE estimates the 2018 midterms clocking in the  highest level of youth participation in a midterm cycle in the last 25 years.


Interviews with over a dozen UT students anecdotally backed-up the data: Registration issues and answers along the lines of “I really meant to” came from a handful of students while more than half voted for the first time or returned to the ballot box.


“I was doing it just because I was able to do it,” first-year biology major Patrick Castillo said.


Second-year bioengineering major Alexis York did not vote. She was not old enough to vote in 2016. Although she is eligible now, she still has not registered.


A group of three students nodded in unison when asked if they went to the polls, and the suggestion they wouldn’t exercise their voting rights seemed to confuse them.


Important to note, there is a caveat to the 18 to 29 year old  numbers when using them to gauge college student turnout said Nancy Thomas, director of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University.


“When [the center] does these surveys, they just capture youth which is 18 to 29, and so that will include college and non-college youth,” Thomas said. Adding, “Exit polls ask, ‘Do you have some college?’ It doesn’t say, ‘Are you currently in college?’”


The group of analysts and researchers she works with have never been able to get good data at the time of the election. Instead, they wait until the official records are in (it takes a couple of months and then another six weeks to write a report), she said.


Still, the numbers paint a picture of what college turnout will look like, which Thomas predicts “will absolutely be high,” adding that high isn’t really high - or impressive - considering the bar is set so low.


“In 2014, which is the comparable year, college students, let’s say 18 to 24 year olds, voted at 13 percent,” Thomas said. “So when you say, ‘Is it going to go up?’ Oh yeah, it’s gonna go up.”


Thomas expected to see an uptick in college student participation in certain areas and not a broad sweep of higher turnout on campuses across the U.S.


“[Turnout] is gonna be spotty. There are going to be some campuses where turnout is going to be very high. And there are gonna be some campuses that are down in the single digits still.”


She offered a list of reasons why there was sure to be a spike in specific locations: “I think [college students] care about hot-button political issues right now; they care a lot about DACA and immigration; they care a lot about health care; they care about jobs [and] college affordability.”


In a New York Times opinion piece “Riled Up and Ready to Vote” budding voters “discussed what motivated them this year.”


Brayden Smith, 22, of Las Vegas, doesn’t trust Democrats.


Roberta Wasserman, 18, of Parkland, Florida, wants stricter gun control, and as an American Jew, is “horrified and shocked about the anti-Semitic violence at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last month.”


Rachel Nix, 20, of Huntington, West Virginia said she was voting to protect the rights of women, the LGBTQ+, immigrants and refugees.


Thomas pointed to an overarching narrative.


“I also think that there’s a lot of anger and negativity toward the Trump Administration among college students right now.”


The data released by CIRCLE at Tufts University found that 67 percent  of youth (not just college students) voted for a House Democratic candidate and just 32 percent for a House Republican candidate, a historic 35-point vote choice gap.


Of course, not all students vote Democratic; “it just means that right now, that happens to be where they are leaning and they really don’t like Donald Trump,” Thomas said.


Shane Logan, chairman of the UT College Republicans, acknowledged the numbers indicating that most of his fellow students favor Democratic policies and candidates.


He wants to flip that script and said as chair, it is his duty to educate students on the benefits of Republican policies, point out the flaws in liberal-leaning ones and close the gap in the data.


Although it’s clear 18 to 29 year olds turned out and voted early in record numbers, information specific to college students is not as clear cut. With thousands of voters, a wide range of motivators and data that is not yet available, the only solid narrative is formed by estimates, available exit-polls and one-on-one interviews.


As Thomas pointed out, “Turnout is really complicated to analyze and it doesn’t lend itself well to journalism.”


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