Joe DeMartin sits at a table outside of Belk with voting registration material
Joe DeMartin ‘21 helps Davidson students register to vote as a part of the Davidson Votes Initiative. Photo by Sarah Woods ‘21 

Hunter Callaway ’22 (He/ Him), Senior Political Correspondent

Ellie Stevens ’25 (She/ Her), Staff Writer

The Tufts University Institute for Democracy & Higher Education (IDHE) publishes reports on student voting rates every two years. The IDHE gathers data from colleges across the country, tracking student engagement according to age, gender, and field of study. 89% of all Davidson students voted in the 2020 election, compared to an average rate of 66% for all institutions of higher learning. Part of Davidson’s political engagement stems from our 98% voter registration rate. Registration hovered around 88% for both the 2016 and 2018 elections but jumped by ten points in part due to the Davidson Votes Initiative. 

According to Davidson Votes founder Joe DeMartin ‘21, the chief reason for past low student voting was “high registration rate, but not as high of a turnout rate.” Solving this problem required more than registering students; Davidson Votes sought out novel strategies to get students to the polls.

In past IDHE reports, Davidson voting rates failed to crack 70%, with 67% of students voting in 2016 and only 51% of students voting in 2018. Although registration remained stable at 88% for 2016 and 2018, registered students were much less likely to vote than in 2020. Tommy Cromie ‘22, co-president of the Center for Political Engagement (CPE), said that the difference came from uncoordinated efforts to engage student voters. Before the Davidson Votes initiative, “voter registration was done by the partisan organizations separately.” DeMartin shared this belief and recounted that “there were quite a few disparate efforts from professors, from CPE, from the administration. Everybody was kind of in halfway.” Out of this environment sprung the Davidson Votes initiative, a coordinated non-partisan campaign to register and turn out every student in the 2020 election.

The organizers’ priority, according to DeMartin, was ensuring that the initiative “was student run and we were putting students first.” While the administration did not directly help register voters, DeMartin recalled that “President Quillen was always such an important advocate for engagement in the political process.” Davidson Votes and the CPE crafted a two-pronged strategy rooted in registering every possible student and eliminating common obstacles to students voting. According to Cromie, traditional strategies like a registration table in Union weren’t possible during a pandemic year.

“We worked with the athletic director, Chris Clunie [‘06], and we started an initiative with athletics to try and get 100% registration of every team.”

Cromie shared that Davidson Votes pursued other partnerships as well, working “with Summit Coffee to provide drinks to people registering to vote.” Beyond registration, the initiative developed multiple strategies to get students to the polls. CPE members shuttled students to early voting for several weeks before the election. The primary goal for DeMartin was getting “information out to students about where, when, and how to vote,” early, by mail, or in-person on election day. Due to COVID, the initiative “put outsized importance on mail-in voting,” and had every student who registered request a mail-in absentee ballot. Their efforts paid off, and in 2020 70% of Davidson students voted early in-person or by mail.

The work done for 2020 has already carried over to elections this year. Cromie said that for the 2021 municipal election, 90% of the student body at Davidson was registered to vote by election day. However, Cromie said “people weren’t really registering this year. We were kind of puzzled why, but then we realized that at that point, in the fall, only the incoming first-years were the people who hadn’t been registered, because 98% of the sophomores, juniors and seniors had been registered.” 

Cromie said that the CPE is going to shift its registration strategy to prioritize incoming students in the future. Ultimately, Cromie attributes the difference in numbers to how “last year there was a lot of energy when it came to politics and elections.” In the past, Davidson’s voting rates regularly dropped in off-year elections. Countering that drop in 2022 will require dedicated efforts by student organizers to build on the work done by Davidson Votes in 2020.