College Campuses: the Decisive Election Battlegrounds to Watch in 2020

When they went to vote in the 2018 midterm elections, Arizona State University junior Carla Naranjo and her classmates waited in lines that were up to three hours long. Their polling place, in fact, “was actually the highest-volume turnout location [in Maricopa County] on Election Day because of the enthusiasm [of] students,” reports Christine Dyster from the County Recorder’s Office.

For months leading up to the elections, student organizers working with the Feminist Majority Foundation, Population Action and NextGen America, among others, had spread out across the ASU campus, working with faculty and resident advisers to make announcements in classrooms and dorms, tabling for countless hours in public spaces and catching a few minutes with students as they raced between classes, talking about the importance of registering and voting.

“When we saw the long lines of students waiting to vote on Election Day, we were psyched,” recalls Carmen Linero-Lopez, a campus organizer with the Feminist Majority Foundation (publisher of Ms.). “But as temperatures hit the 90s and students had to get to class or work, we realized we better do whatever it takes to get more voting stations set up—and fast.”

This piece is excerpted from the Winter 2020 issue of Ms.

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Urgent calls to the County Recorder’s Office got results. By late afternoon more voting stations were delivered. “We were stoked when we saw the additional voting stations get set up,” Linero-Lopez says, “but we never stopped walking up and down the lines supporting the students.”

Students stuck it out. “There were so many groups giving water, handing out pizza and trying to incentivize students as much as possible to just please stay in line, to cast your ballot,” Naranjo remembers.

The wait was worth it. By a margin of just 56,000 votes, the state elected its first woman senator, Kyrsten Sinema—the first Arizona Democrat sent to the Senate in 30 years. In all, 41,286 ASU students voted, an increase of more than 28,000 over the midterm elections in 2014. The turnout of students was so significant that the voting bloc of 18- to 34-year-olds, which usually represents 8 percent of voters, increased its share of the total electorate to 12.5 percent, according to data from the Arizona Secretary of State’s office.

Arizona was not alone. Across the nation in the 2018 midterms, college students’ voting rate more than doubled, increasing from 19.3 percent in 2014 to 40.3 percent, with an estimated 7.5 million students casting their ballots, according to the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement conducted by Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy & Higher Education.

“Students mobilized around competitive state races and … around issues like immigration, gun violence and the environment,” Nancy Thomas, director of the Tufts institute, wrote in the report “Democracy Counts: Increased Student and Institutionalized Engagement.”

The midterms proved the power of young voters, especially young women: The Tufts study found that female students, especially black women, voted at the highest rates, with Latina students registering the largest gains. Thomas believes the numbers reflect young women recognizing the impact they can have: “They’re exercising their voice and sensing their power,” she told Ms.

“While they are not a monolithic group,” Thomas wrote, “the 20 million students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities present a formidable voting bloc.”

With even more young voters expected to turn out this year, college campuses are set to become a political battleground in the 2020 elections.

The increase in student voting should be a cause for widespread celebration, but not everyone will take it as good news. College students tend to vote Democratic, according to a Pew Research Center report. Sixty-seven percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted for Democratic candidates in 2018. In contrast, adults 45 and older were almost evenly divided between voting Democratic and Republican.

The result?

“What I think might be happening is … [some state legislatures are] taking a look and saying, ‘Well, voting rates are too high. So we’re gonna try to deprive students of that right,’” Thomas says.

Students have the ability to determine the outcome of elections, as seen in Arizona, and students are using their vote strategically: “What they’re doing is … comparing where they live versus where they go to school,” Thomas says, “and they’re saying, ‘Where can I vote and have the most impact?’”

Legislatures in swing states like Wisconsin, Florida and New Hampshire have moved to impose rules that make it harder for college students to register and vote. Common methods include restrictions on what qualifies as an ID to vote, moving polling places away from campuses and limiting the definition of who qualifies as a “resident” for voter registration purposes.

In Wisconsin, a law severely restricts the use of student IDs for voting, requiring that the ID have an expiration date within two years of its date of issuance, and that students prove independently that they are currently enrolled, a requirement no other accepted form of ID must meet. The Andrew Goodman Foundation—named for the young Freedom Summer voter registration volunteer who, along with two other civil rights workers, was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in 1964—is suing the Wisconsin Elections Committee in federal court over the ID restrictions.

“This assault on the voting rights of students in Wisconsin has personal significance,” says David Goodman, president of the foundation. “My brother, and our organization’s namesake, Andrew Goodman … is an alumnus of the University of Wisconsin. We will continue to uphold his legacy by fighting against any attempts to infringe on our nation’s most fundamental right.”

In Florida, lawmakers hindered efforts in 2019 to bring more polling stations to college campuses by requiring “sufficient non-permitted parking” at early voting sites—a mandate that is virtually impossible for most campuses to meet with their already limited parking facilities. The restriction is being challenged in federal court by six Florida college students, the League of Women Voters of Florida and the Andrew Goodman Foundation as an unconstitutional burden on young voters.

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In New Hampshire, the legislature passed a law that changes the definition of a “resident” to exclude anyone with an out-of-state driver’s license or car registration. On the University of New Hampshire’s main campus alone, more than 50 percent of its students are from out of state, and the state’s drivers’ licenses and vehicle registrations can cost hundreds of dollars annually—an impossible expense for many college students.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire worked with students at Dartmouth College to protest the law, which they say amounts to a poll tax. In November a federal judge denied their motion for a preliminary injunction and the rule went into place for the presidential primaries, but the ACLU is continuing to fight the law in court.

Contrast New Hampshire with Arizona. Although ASU students faced long lines to vote, they had a much easier time casting a ballot in the midterms than in previous years as a result of efforts by the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office, which handles the county’s elections. Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes worked with the ASU student government and student groups in a massive push for voter registration, in addition to his office making sweeping changes to increase voter participation throughout the jurisdiction.

The County Recorder Office’s 3-year-old community relations team has a youth outreach coordinator who hosts quarterly roundtable meetings to receive feedback on how to better serve students. Dyster, the public information officer, recognizes the county still has improvements to make before 2020. “We are actively working with [ASU] to secure a better voting location for 2020 because the location we use, we now know is too small,” she says.

Students have the right to register and vote where they are attending college, a right protected under the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1979 decision Symm v. United States, which dealt specifically with the question of residency. The case originated in rural Waller County outside of Houston, where Prairie View A&M University, a historically Black college whose alumni hail from 41 states across the country, is located. In its ruling, the court struck down the county’s use of a “residency questionnaire” for students who were trying to register to vote. The questionnaire inquired into students’ future plans, their property ownership and home address. The court found that the questionnaire functioned to deny the students the “presumption of bona fide residency” in violation of the 14th, 15th and 26th amendments, which lowered the voting age to 18 and prohibits denial or abridgment of the right to vote on account of age.

State legislatures like New Hampshire’s have continued to pass laws that violate the decades-old ruling, knowing the lawsuits contesting these restrictions “are very expensive and take a long time,” says Gilda Daniels, a voting rights expert and professor at the University of Baltimore. And as Daniels told Ms., “Once the election is over, you can’t undo it.”

Colleges and universities also have an obligation under federal law to make voter registration and voting available to all students attending their institution. The federal Higher Education Act of 1965 was amended in 1998 to require that all higher education institutions in states with a voter registration requirement or that mandate advance registration in order to vote “make a good faith effort” to encourage voter registration of students on their campuses. Although this was largely ignored for many years, recently more college and university presidents “have put financial and human resources behind student political engagement efforts,” Thomas wrote in the Tufts institute’s report.

Thomas also noted “new energy and a greater sense of agency among students” when it comes to civic engagement. A multitude of student-driven organizations around the country are working to ensure students vote, using advocacy and on-the-ground campaigns.

Young Invincibles, an organization with offices across the country, founded Students Learn Students Vote (SLSV) a nonpartisan coalition composed of more than 300 national, state and local organizations as well as college and university faculty and administrators focused on increasing the student vote.

The coalition’s various programs promote civic engagement on college campuses, including “Campus Takeover” efforts on National Voter Registration Day every September, #VoteTogether events during early voting and on Election Day, and the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, a national awards program that recognizes colleges and universities for their dedication to increasing student voting rates. All these initiatives are aimed at making voting community driven, collaborative and celebratory.

Additionally, a major focus of SLSV is to provide resources to college and university administrations, faculty, student government, student groups and election officials to institutionalize student civic engagement and voting. Coalition member Campus Vote Project together with the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators created the Voter Friendly Campus program that helps schools develop concrete action plans to both implement policies and programming on campus for increasing voter participation among students, and to address external barriers like voter ID laws and lack of polling places near or on campus.

Linero-Lopez of the Feminist Majority Foundation emphasizes the importance of ensuring that universities commit adequate funding and staffing to their action plans to increase student civic engagement.

“ASU’s administration and student government were key partners, along with the County Recorder’s Office, in ensuring students could register and vote in the 2018 elections,” she says.

Given the surge in voting in the midterms, it’s clear the SLSV coalition’s efforts are working to unlock the student vote. Looking toward the presidential election in 2020, Clarissa Unger, director of civic engagement at Young Invincibles, is hopeful.

“Since voting is habitual, and a lot of college students are first-time voters, I think just that alone shows that we’re going to see much higher increases in voter turnout,” she says.

Student government associations play a key role in civic engagement programming on campus: funding voter registration, outreach and education activities, as well as providing the facilities on campus for polling places. At larger universities, student government operating budgets can range into the millions of dollars from the activity fees collected from every student enrolled. The student government at the University of Colorado in Boulder is among the largest, with approximately $24 million to allocate every year, and the University of Central Florida’s student government has more than $20 million.

So it should come as no surprise that a conservative organization like Turning Point USA would invest more than $2 million in its “Campus Victory Project” to “commandeer the top office of student body president at each of the most recognizable and influential American universities.”

According to TPUSA’s strategic plan for “winning back our universities,” its focus on student government elections is critical to its mission to undermine what it considers to be the “progressive political scene” on campuses by defunding progressive student groups and events that are regularly supported by student activity fees allocated by student governments, including the kinds of voter registration and civic education efforts promoted by SLSV.

As a 501(c)(3) organization, TPUSA is required to be nonpartisan, like its progressive counterparts in the SLSV coalition. But with the list of speakers at its annual conference and featured on its website—including Donald Trump Jr. and Lara Trump, Eric Trump’s wife, among other Trump-associated figures—it appears to be anything but.

The group’s president, Charlie Kirk, spoke at the Republican National Convention in 2016 and campaigned for then-candidate Donald Trump. Moreover, TPUSA’s Campus Victory Project brochure says its goal is to “target … over 100 critical universities in ‘swing states’ before 2020,” including Florida, Ohio, Arizona, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

“TPUSA is totally out of touch with the values most students hold: environmental justice, immigration reform, gender equity, racial justice, the social safety net,” Linero-Lopez observes. “Although they spend a lot of time and money attempting to influence students, they know they can’t change the progressive values held by the majority of young voters, so they actively work to suppress the student vote by defunding civic engagement programs on campuses.”

With so much at stake in the 2020 elections, and with voters between the ages of 18 and 23 now comprising one in 10 eligible voters, the campus battleground is set. Thomas predicts that for many young voters “anger [at the current administration] will get out the vote.” She remains optimistic that college students will seize the opportunity to vote, despite the obstacles they’ve faced: “There’s no doubt in my mind the turnout rates will be record breaking in 2020.”


Milan Polk is a freelance writer and college senior majoring in journalism at Northwestern University.