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Voter turnout among University students increased 18.1% in 2020, election survey finds

| Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Despite voting challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Notre Dame students flooded the absentee polls in the 2020 presidential election. Even though the majority live outside Indiana, students secured absentee ballots with help from campus civic engagement groups like ND Votes.

According to a Center for Social Concerns (CSC) research report published January, 71.4% of Notre Dame students voted in the 2020 election, up from 53.3% in 2016.

Courtesy of the Center for Social Concerns Research Report on Democratic Engagement
Student voting rates have been on the rise throughout the last two general elections, nearing 90% for the 2020 presidential election.

In line with major trends among college students nationwide, Notre Dame students favored Democratic candidate President Joe Biden over Republican candidate and former President Donald Trump, 67.3% to 27.8%. 

Courtesy of the Center for Social Concerns Research Report on Democratic Engagement
Since the survey began in 2004, Notre Dame students have shown increased support for Democratic candidates.

Associate director of the CSC Jay Brandenberger has played a major role in compiling the presidential election reports since they began in 2004. Compared to past years, Brandenberger said 2020 is notable because of the high proportion of students who voted.

“The change in 2020 is that way more students voted,” he said. “It was harder to get to the polls, all of those barriers, and we got about 2,000 more students to vote.”

Elevated voter turnout was identified through a survey sent out to a sample of students and more extensive data from the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement (NSLVE) conducted through Tufts University.

Brandenberger and another one of the report’s co-authors, senior Madeline Ward, said the campus survey is susceptible to self-selection bias, but the NSLVE data — which accounts for every student at Notre Dame — confirms the survey findings.

“If you’re a person who’s just not interested in political things, you’ll probably just trash the email,” Brandenberger said.

Ward agreed that those who responded to the survey — which had a 41.7% yield rate — were likelier to be more politically engaged than the average student. Still, the survey numbers aligned with the NSLVE data, giving the researchers confidence in the validity of the survey.

The NSLVE collects data on student voting records through public records to determine the level of civic engagement on college campuses. These records do not show which candidate students voted for, but they do provide a source of voting data not swayed by self-reporting biases.

Ward, who is also a student leader at ND Votes, said the data will help the group continue to encourage civic engagement.

“As one of the leaders of ND Votes, it’s super important to have the knowledge and data to back up what we’re doing and how we choose to approach getting people registered and engaged in elections,” Ward said. 

Ward said this data will become even more relevant during the midterm elections this November. ND Votes plans to employ dorm representatives and tabling events to encourage students to continue voting in high numbers during midterms. Some states’ absentee ballot application deadlines are quickly approaching before midterm elections, she added.

In terms of his future research, Brandenberger said he hopes to examine strategies to decrease political polarization at Notre Dame.

Brandenberger said polarization and differences between parties were illustrated in the report by the different ways students prioritized issues when voting.

Courtesy of the Center for Social Concerns Research Report on Democratic Engagement
The research report highlighted differences in key voting issues for Democratic and Republican voters.

The report found that students who voted for the Democratic ticket in 2020 cited COVID-19 pandemic response and racial justice concerns as key voting issues. Those who voted for the Republican ticket cited the economy and abortion as their priority voting issues. Voters on opposite sides of the spectrum prioritized few similar key issues.

“I’m most interested in how we can cross the political divide that’s emerged in the last 4 to 5 years,” Brandenberger said. “What I hope we can get beyond is ‘My party is the only thing I think about.’”

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About Maggie Eastland

Maggie Eastland currently serves as Editor-in-Chief. When she's not working in The Observer office or writing business news, you can find her reading a book, going for a run or drinking her sixth cup of SDH coffee.

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