Joe Demartin ’21 and Cutler Renard ’20

By some estimates, 2020 will be the first election where Millenials and Gen Zers represent over a third of eligible voters.

Recent youth-led movements demanding action to prevent gun violence, to address climate change, or to protest police brutality have energized millions of young Americans. 

However, whether due to structural barriers, disillusionment with politics, or other reasons,  Americans aged 18-36 have had the lowest turnout of any age groups in recent elections, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Our generation has strong ideas of what a better world could look like, but if our rates of participation in politics remain low, there are few paths to achieving them.

Tufts University’s National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) collaborates with colleges and universities to study the voting habits of their students. 

Davidson’s NSLVE report for the 2018 midterms found that the turnout rate of eligible Davidson students that year was just 37%—two percentage points lower than the national average for college students. 

Clearly, we here at Davidson are far from immune to the problem; nor are we immune to the effects of those elections where fewer young people vote. 

Multiple election victories by both Democrats and Republicans in North Carolina have been decided by narrow margins, such as the 2014 midterms, the same election where Davidson students’ turnout rate stood at only 19.7%.

This past November, Davidson President Carol Quillen spoke on a panel at a conference on “Civics and the Future of Democracy” organized by The Atlantic and Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. to discuss how educational institutions could support democratic engagement among students. 

President Quillen called on colleges to remember that they had an obligation to their students to “facilitat[e] direct participation” in the political process, especially regarding their access to the vote. 

President Quillen is absolutely right to emphasize the connection between civic commitment and political activity and the mission of the College, but what might that look like in practice?

There have been past attempts by campus organizations, faculty, and administrators to facilitate student voting, primarily through voter registration. 

However, this coming election year calls for more than a handful of disconnected efforts. Davidson can best foster the political engagement of students through an organized, student-run initiative to register, educate, and turn out voters in a systematic and innovative way on a campus-wide scale. 

Over the course of the past two weeks, we’ve brought together a broad coalition of student organizations under the name “Davidson Votes” to do just that.

We started with several registration drives over the past school year, and our collective efforts resulted in more than 200 students registering to vote. 

During these drives, we found that students can often make mistakes or leave out information that could cause their registration to be denied. 

Standardizing registrations across campus, training registration volunteers to help and educate their peers, and collecting completed forms to be checked for errors made registration faster, easier, and more accurate. But this is only the beginning of what Davidson Votes could do on campus.

We’ve found that voter registration efforts end up playing a game of catch-up, trying to pick up unregistered students piecemeal throughout the school year. 

The most effective way to register hundreds of students at once would be at a place and time where an entire class is assembled: orientation. 

Several other institutions, like the University of Michigan, offer voter registration and education events during orientation, leading to increases in both student registration and turnout. Northwestern University has even implemented a process where students are registered as they pick up their campus ID.

Registration alone isn’t enough, though. A close look at the NSLVE data reveals that even as over 80% of eligible students were registered to vote in 2018, the voting rate of registered students was only 45.3%. 

More than half of Davidson students who filled out a registration form failed to vote. 

Davidson Votes would organize increased educational events and use social media to ensure students knew where, when, and how to vote. 

We even believe a system of automatic text and email reminders could be set up to deliver basic voting information directly to students on and before Election Day.

For this program to succeed, it will need involvement from everyone on campus. Democracy is a verb, so what can you do to help Davidson Votes help Davidson vote? 

Obviously, the first thing anyone can do is vote, if you’re able.

If you’re a student, become a trained volunteer with Davidson Votes to educate and register your peers. If you lead a student organization, join Davidson Votes as a participating group. 

If you’re a professor, coordinate with Davidson Votes to register your classes or advisees. We’ll give you forms and guidelines and turn the forms into the Board of Elections. Consider holding a half-class on Election Day and lead your students on the ten-minute walk to Davidson Town Hall to vote together as fellow citizens. 

If you’re a member of the administration, consider letting staff take an hour or two off to vote. Most importantly, empower students as leaders in these efforts by giving us the resources we need, and trusting our recommendations for what will work best to help students vote.

Duringthe Atlantic panel, President Quillen spoke eloquently of the potential for the American campus to serve as a “laboratory for shared purpose,” where students work together to solve problems across their differences. 

Davidson can be a national model for a student-run, innovative system that streamlines access to voting and encourages collaboration among students in a shared political project. 

The voice of our generation is needed more than ever, not just as voters but as leaders, too. 

If we students step up to the task, and if our teachers and administrators support us, we all can ensure our peers, colleagues, friends, teachers, students, and neighbors have the easiest possible access to their democratic voice.

Joe DeMartin ’21 is an English and political science double major from  Baltimore, Maryland. Cutler Renard ’20 is a classics major from Jacksonville, Florida. Contact him at curenard@davidson.edu.