January 2020

At the age of 20, Ben Menke, a political science and statistics major from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, has yet to cast his first ballot in a presidential election. But when the general election rolls around in November, the Gustavus Adolphus junior is planning to bring as many classmates as possible along with him to the polls.

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“Our goal is to get 85 percent of our students registered and then to get 90 percent of them to turn out on the day of the election,” said Menke, a member of Gustavus’ Voter Education Committee, a nonpartisan student group aimed at encouraging every student on campus to take up their civic duty this election year. Their goals, Menke said, are “pretty ambitious but actually possible” at a residential college like Gustavus.

During the last presidential election, in fact, Gusties distinguished themselves as the most politically engaged college students in the state with 63 percent of the student body registered to vote — a rate that earned them top honors in the first-ever Minnesota College Ballot Bowl sponsored by the Secretary of State. But it’s not just the bragging rights that are inspiring students and faculty in St. Peter to pull out the stops with voter information tables, debate viewing parties and the occasional taco truck sign-up event — it’s also part of the school’s mission.

“Our institutional values of community, justice, excellence and service all come together in a meaningful way around being an engaged citizen,” said JoNes VanHecke, vice president of student life and dean of students at Gustavus Adolphus College. “We want our students to understand that they have a substantial role in building and engaging with their communities, and one of the best ways that young people can do that is by becoming informed and active voters.”

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With its same-day voter registration, Minnesota often leads the country in voter engagement — a trend that’s playing out on many of the campuses of the state’s private colleges, too. During the 2018 mid-terms, for instance, the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph earned national recognition from the All In Campus Democracy Challenge for having the most improved undergraduate voting rate at a small liberal arts college. And Hamline University in St. Paul notched not only the highest voting rate for a campus of its size from All In, but also the highest overall voting rate at any private college in the country. The distinction earned Nur Mood, Hamline’s assistant director of social justice programs and strategic relations, a trip to Washington, D.C. in November to convene with other winners and share lessons learned from the last election cycle. “I was on a panel with representatives from Harvard and the University of Michigan, and yet, when it comes to getting students involved in voting, we’re all seeing many of the same challenges,” Mood said.

For instance, turn-out among black college students decreased by more than five percent between 2012 and 2016, according to figures from Tufts University’s National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement. There are also significant differences among racial-ethnic groups nationally when it comes to average turn-out. In addition, the study found that college women vote in greater numbers than college men (52 vs. 44 in 2016), and that there are pronounced voting disparities among students from one campus major to the next. For example, 53 percent of students in the social sciences turn out to vote — a rate nearly 10 percentage points higher than those enrolled in STEM programs.

With that kind of room for improvement, Minnesota private colleges are tweaking their turn-out strategies and taking advantage of Minnesota’s Super Tuesday primary on March 3 to bring attention to the election season timeline and to make sure that students from here and other states know their voting rights and responsibilities.

Hamline is taking an all-in approach in 2020, Mood said, with a student voter education coalition that’s enlisting everyone from athletic coaches to key professors in each department to talk to their students about the value of voting, while making sure they have the time and resources to do so. Hot cocoa and campus shuttle buses to the polls are part of the plan to mitigate the effect Minnesota weather can have on turn-out. Mood says Hamline’s faculty have also been supportive of a plan to make sure “that there are no exams on Election Day and that students won’t have anything due that day.”

While turn-out among 18- to 29-year-olds nearly doubled in 2018, voting among young people still lags far behind other age groups. Students at Gustavus are hoping to hack that problem with a plan to reach out to first-time high school voters in St. Peter and to remind recent alums to remember the lessons of civic engagement they learned in college and vote in their communities. “We’ve tried to think about it less as a generational issue for Millennials or Gen Z students and think about it more in terms of what information do our Gustavus students need to stay engaged,” VanHecke said. “When Gusties are involved in educating other Gusties, that’s where we see the most success.”

“We’ve found success by taking a multi-partisan, student-led approach and making clear that we’re not looking for the ‘right’ person to vote; we’re trying to make everyone aware of how to vote,” said Matt Lindstrom, a political science professor at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University and director of the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement. “We’ve also found that it’s important to meet the students where they’re at,” he said. “Rather than having separate, stand-alone events where you’re trying to drag people, our students did a lot of ‘dorm-storming,’ so to speak, and talked to classmates where they are.”

Saint Ben’s senior Tessa Pichotta, a McCarthy Center student coordinator, said that this season, those conversations have helped call attention to national efforts to suppress student voting and the importance of knowing how local election laws work. “It is a topic we talk about regularly, and we have some push back; even in this community, there are still people who think students only live here partially and they shouldn’t have as much of a say. That doesn’t make sense to me. With that kind of misinformation, it’s important for students to know their rights to vote and to make sure they’re not turned away on election day.”

Just days away from the Iowa caucuses, it’s too soon to say which candidates could inspire this generation of college voters, but there’s one prediction that political scientists are confident making. “Scholarship shows that the more someone is involved in civic engagement early in their lives, the more it will increase their sense of political efficacy and their interest in being a life-long active citizen,” Lindstrom said. “That’s a good lesson to get during your college years.”

by Laura Billings Coleman