How students are dramatically changing US elections
Student voters have drastically changed a Wisconsin election drawing in record-breaking voter turnout. How is this happening and can the same phenomenon ignite in the UK? Editor-in-Chief, Jamie Speka, breaks it down.
Recently, a traditionally low-turnout Spring election in Wisconsin has instead become an exceptional affront to the Republican Party. The second most populous county in Wisconsin had the highest voter turnout across the state. These record-breaking numbers have changed the state’s electoral predictability effectively reforming its political math. All of this electoral annihilation is owed to one factor: students.
Students’ voting power has never been a secret; affluent community’s propensity to blue has been transparent since the turn of the century. What makes Wisconsin so unique, is the sheer amount of students who voted.
The American Communities Project has designated 171 independent cities and counties as college towns, all of which have become overwhelmingly blue dating back to the 2000 election. Indeed, 38 have flipped from red to blue since 2000 and in the last presidential election, the 25 million who live in these cities and counties voted for Joe Biden by 54%.
Charlie Mahtesian and Madi Alexander write for Politico that “If the surrounding county was a reliable source of Democratic votes in the past, it’s a landslide county now. There are exceptions to the rule, particularly in the states with the most conservative voting habits. But even in reliably red places like South Carolina, Montana and Texas, you’ll find at least one college-oriented county producing ever larger Democratic margins.”
If the surrounding county was a reliable source of Democratic votes in the past, it’s a landslide county now.
So, why is there such a dramatic change?
My father chimes in. As an American college student in 1984, freshly eighteen, he recollects that he “didn’t vote”.
“It just didn’t seem that urgent back then,” he tells me. “Things all seem more urgent now.”
Mahtesian and Alexander think that the “rising levels of student engagement on growing campuses” is a contributing factor. In collaboration with student engagement, University enrollment rates have been on the rise since my Dad stepped foot on his campus in 1984. Back then 12.3 million students joined him, whereas when I entered an American college in 2019, I joined 19.6 million.
Back then 12.3 million students joined him, whereas when I entered an American college in 2019, I joined 19.6 million.
It’s not just students flocking into these college towns. These communities are usually rife with job opportunities thanks to university partnerships and have a high quality of life from the abundant economy. As the universities grow, the community inevitably follows.
It’s safe to say that younger, college-aged voters are encouraged by social media as well. Engagement is furthered by social ties and in an age that is incredibly interconnected, this is no surprise. In an (albeit 2012) study, this belief seems to hold up.
A massive powerhouse of voter growth has to do with intensified change affecting college-aged voters. Politico again cites Wisconsin students who “came of age during a period that has felt like partisan wartime defined by mass shootings, climate change, two presidential impeachments, Covid and Jan. 6. Then, last year, Roe vs. Wade was overturned. They understand that every vote counts because they have seen razor-thin margins decide many statewide elections.”
As for Republicans and the GOP, who had more than half of their voters aged 50 or over in the 2020 election, these trends from student voters should be worrying.
Cleta Mitchell, a conservative strategist and board member for the right-leaning Bradley Foundation, reportedly told donors that colleges “basically put the polling place next to the student dorm so they just have to roll out of bed, vote and go back to bed.” And Republicans have taken to Twitter to declare these trends “radical indoctrination”. Politico explains that Republican and GOP methods of combatting these trends have included targeting students’ voting rights, creating additional barriers to voter access or redrawing maps to limit the power of college communities. These efforts, however, may not be successful. For starters they don’t grow the GOP vote, rather simply suppress democratic totals which take over by quite a large margin. They also “aren’t addressing the structural problems created by the rising tide of college-town votes” where students are only the beginning of the overall phenomenon.
Could this happen in the UK?
While UK students are just as susceptible to the unprecedented change and media of the era, the same urgency in voting is unfounded. They can make a difference, just not in the same way Wisconsin, Colorado, and Texas do.
For starters, university communities are growing just the same as in the US. Students are populating towns more as higher education becomes more accessible to young people with increases averaging 2.6% yearly since 1994 (following the reform of the sector). Yet, these figures mean nothing if students don’t vote.
The unpredictability of student voting patterns diminishes the power of students in the UK. A Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) Report explains that despite their potential “students are often young and live in relatively short-term rented accommodation, typically with only loose links to the communities in which they reside. As a result, they are sometimes absent from the electoral roll. If registered, they are less likely to turn out to vote.”
In the same way that swing states are changing their footing in the US thanks to students, these constituencies are too.
Equally, election dates matter in conservative constituencies that have a high presence of university students. In a recent bi-election in Uxbridge, the Tory party narrowly won over Labour by just 495 votes and this took place out of university term time. Students wonder if these numbers would look drastically different had they been during term time. Marginals in Southampton and Bournemouth show similar signs of hot seats that students could have a massive effect on. In the 2017 General Election held on the 8th of June, the conservatives won by a mere 31 votes. Bournemouth’s 4th of May local election saw a labour win by a 379 vote margin. In the same way that swing states are changing their footing in the US thanks to students, these constituencies are too.
Despite initiatives to gather a youth vote, there has not been much change in the UK. Jeremy Corbyn tried and the youth turnout barely budged 2.5%. In constituencies that already have a safe seat, the student vote won’t change a thing and quite a few university areas are faced with this proposition. Counties with unstable constituencies are presented with change from universities, but it’s not an unprecedented number of student voters that contribute to this change.
In the US, the immediacy of extreme political actions such as abortion rights is a large factor of motivation. The UK and most of Europe for that matter, are not faced with the same extremities that the US has been gathering. This could be a large factor in the low voter turnouts among the youth.
The student equation is not yet making as great strides as it has in the US in ways that cause worry to conservative politicians, but it is still present. There are no political reformations as the political pendulum is far more stable than in the US which is where these two countries differ. Overall seeing a change as we do in the US would have to come from exceptional electoral upheaval within the UK.