Published: Nov. 2, 2021 By

Image: Owen Arnold, right, a junior medic production student from Chicago, gets instructions from ballot judge Luis Molina, a first-year international affairs student at a polling place in the UMC at CU Boulder. (Photo by Casey A. Cass/University of Colorado)

A high-profile election featuring Trump vs. Biden, combined with an array of voter registration efforts on and off campus, led to CU Boulder student voting in 2020 increasing a whopping 12.7 percentage points to 80.3% of enrolled students.

That’s an increase from 67.6% of eligible students voting in 2016, and surpasses the voting rate of the university’s national peers. The figure is especially remarkable considering the election happened amid a global pandemic. 

By the numbers

  • 80.3% of CU Boulder students voted in 2020
  • 15,000 students reached in campus-level outreach efforts
  • 40 classrooms reached by Colorado Law students 
  • 65 classrooms reached by CUSG
  • 66% of college students voted in 2020 (nationally)
  • 8,880,700 voting-eligible students representing 1,051 colleges and universities (nationally)

“These numbers illustrate that young people care deeply about our democracy and want to have their voices at the table when it comes to policy and lawmaking,” Chancellor Philip DiStefano said. “I am very proud of our voter turnout in 2020 and hope we can continue the momentum for every election, including at the local level.”

Leading up to the historic 2020 election, two dozen law students working with the Byron R. White Center for the Study of Constitutional Law visited 40 different campus classrooms (many on Zoom) and made a personal announcement about the election and the process for registering to vote. The University of Colorado Student Government (CUSG) distributed an announcement that was read in 65 classrooms. 

In all, these campus-level outreach efforts reached more than 15,000 CU students.

Additionally, CU Boulder joined several other national voter education and registration challenges as a way to boost student civic engagement, which tends to lag compared to other age groups. 

All the efforts, including those leading up to today’s off-year election, are aligned to the ​ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, a national, nonpartisan program supporting and recognizing colleges and universities for their commitment to helping students form the habits of active and informed citizenship and making democratic participation a core value on their campuses. 

Whether a record-setting voting rate is enough to secure CU Boulder recognition amongst its peers in Colorado and across the nation will be clear when awards are announced this month.

Student voting history

Prior to 1971, most college students didn’t have the right to vote, said Law Professor Doug Spencer, who worked on student voter registration efforts in 2020. Only after the ratification of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution could 18- to 20-year-olds vote. However, the turnout rate among 18- to 20-year-olds was very low for many years. President Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign and Obama’s 2008 campaign specifically targeted youth voters, and turnout increased to 50%. The climb to 80% on the CU Boulder campus is astounding, he said. 

“This is a remarkable accomplishment and shows how accessible voting and concerted efforts by university leaders and student groups can make a real impact,” Spencer said. “These turnout numbers also illustrate what makes CU Boulder such a special place to teach and learn: Our students care about the world around them, they are politically active and vested in their own futures, and they know how to make their voices heard.”

The CU Boulder data comes from the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education (IDHE), creators of the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement, or NSLVE. IDHE is located at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life.

The NSLVE is the nation’s largest study of college and university student voting. Institutions must opt in to the study, and, at this time, nearly 1,200 campuses of all types––community colleges, research universities, minority-serving and women’s colleges, state universities and private institutions––participate. 

Nationwide, the study’s authors reported a record-breaking set of findings. 

On campuses across the country, students built on the momentum swing of 2018 and voted at high rates in the 2020 election, with voter turnout jumping to 66% in last year’s presidential election. The 14 percentage point increase, from 52% turnout in the 2016 election, outpaces that of all Americans, which jumped 6 percentage points from 61% to 67%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The dataset reflects all 50 states and the District of Columbia and includes 49 of the nation’s 50 flagship schools. IDHE uses de-identified student records to ensure student privacy. The 2020 dataset is robust with 8,880,700 voting-eligible students representing 1,051 colleges and universities.

“That students, often younger and first-time voters, turned out at rates commensurate with the general public is nothing short of stunning,” said IDHE Director Nancy Thomas. “We attribute this high level of participation to many factors, including student activism on issues such as racial injustice, global climate change and voter suppression, as well as increased efforts by educators to reach students and connect them to the issues and to voting resources.”