CASTLETON — With less than a month until Election Day, a group of Castleton University students has been busy getting their classmates ready to vote.
This semester, students at CU’s Content Lab, which creates multimedia projects for nonprofits and startups in search of creative help, has been focusing on a student voter drive.
Last month, the Content Lab launched #WhySpartansVote, a social media campaign in which students and faculty share their reasons for voting.
“I vote because my daughter deserves a better world,” one reads.
“I vote because it’s my right as an American,” reads another.
On a Zoom call with the Herald recently, several Content Lab members discussed their get-out-the-vote efforts.
Senior David Malinowski said the hope is that a campaign run by students will reach them more effectively than one led by faculty or administration.
With the coronavirus pandemic changing how voting looks this year, the group has also been working to provide students with information on how to register, where to vote, how obtain mail-in ballots if needed and links to profiles of Vermont candidates. In addition, helps out-of-state students learn how vote by directing them to vote.org.
“I think our role has been really just informing and getting those resources to students,” said senior Brooke Rubright.
Laura McCutcheon, another senior, said #WhySpartansVote is designed live on after this election cycle.
“One of the goals of this voter campaign drive that we’re doing is actually to have it continuously going,” she said.
But while getting CU students registered to vote isn’t difficult, getting them to turn out on election day remains a challenge.
According to the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement conducted by the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University, CU students who are eligible to vote consistently turn out in fewer numbers than students overall at public four-year institutions and the public.
In 2012, about 31% of CU students who were eligible to vote actually cast a ballot — a rate 16% less than four-year students overall and 27% less than the general public.
In the 2014 midterms, only 14% of CU students voted.
Not surprisingly, turnout was up across the board in the 2016 general election with 40% of CU students voting. Still, turnout was 10% less than the student average.
The 2018 midterms also saw a higher turnout. Almost 36% of CU students — nearly in line with students overall — and 50% of the general public voted.
“We got them registered. They just didn’t vote,” said CU Political Science Professor Rich Clark.
“I think we need to make our students aware that they are voting in lower numbers,” he said, adding that voter turnout has, in fact, been improving in recent cycles.
CU has been working with the IDHE since 2012 to collect student voting data. Clark said the IDHE data is more reliable because, unlike self-reporting, which can overestimate voting behavior, it uses public records. Also, the data allows the University to drill down to analyze voting habits by age, major or class year.
“It’s good, hard data,” he said.
Clark said political scientists have traditionally attributed low voter turnout among young people to two factors: apathy and a lack of civic engagement.
“They just they don’t feel connected,” he said.
“But more and more, we’ve discovered that it’s really more about non-cognitive skills,” he said. “It’s about their ability to follow through — they intend to vote and then they just don’t make it there — they see the polling places and everybody’s old, and it doesn’t look like a place where they belong; (or) the rules are just a bit arcane to them … and they don’t participate.”
The #WhySpartansVote campaign, Clark said, is a way to break down those barriers and make voting more relevant and accessible to students. “We know that if people vote early — I mean, young — and start voting then, then they become regular voters because voting becomes habit,” he said. “They haven’t developed the habit yet.” Clark noted the data punctures the belief held by some Castleton residents that large numbers of CU students voting skew local elections results and, therefore, students should not be encouraged to vote in the town.
According to Clark, there has not been a polling place on campus in at least 6 years. The town, he said, chose to move the location citing parking issues.
“We had a student who was actually told while waiting in line to vote, ‘You don’t belong here,’” Clark said, acknowledging that such a statement is tantamount to voter intimidation.
Clark mentioned a recent talk Secretary of State Jim Condos gave to first-year students, during which he asked Condos to remind students that they belong in the Castleton community.
“They have every right, as much right as anybody else in Castleton to vote, if they’re living in the dorms here or renting an apartment in Castleton,” Clark said.
But CU’s low voter turnout may be a symptom of an overall lack of engagement in politics and social issues.
“It doesn’t seem like a lot of people are very interested in not just political issues but national political issues, maybe even local issues,” Malinowski said. “It’s not that they don’t care; they’re just not aware of it.”
He added that, while he sees a lot of political discourse on social media, it doesn’t seem to translate to real-world engagement.
“I’ve always imagined that most people do care, they just don’t care to talk about it,” he said. “I think part of the (#WhySpartansVote) campaign is just trying to get people to talk about it, and get out there and be active in the community.”