Kallie Barrie is a senior politics major.
Despite a global pandemic, USF remains a heavily civically engaged campus and in 2020, our voter turnout rate increased by nearly 20% from previous years largely in part to the student-led organization USFVotes in partnership with the Andrew Goodman Foundation (NSLVE). This data was shared with USFVotes and comes from the biannual release of the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) Campus Report published through the Tufts University Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, which provides colleges and universities information on their student’s voting habits and builds a national database for research on students’ political leaning and engagement in democracy.
As one of two USFVotes Campus Leads, I was able to use this data to celebrate improvements in voter turnout on our campus as well as address ways in which we can strive to improve and continue to make voting more accessible to the USF student body especially as we prepare a campus plan for upcoming midterm elections in 2022.
The report shared with USFVotes is a cause for celebration, as the student-led voter engagement initiative has a close partnership with the group that publishes it. Hearing that voter engagement rates have increased on USF’s campus is always welcomed news, but this report also helps narrow down specific areas that need improvement so that everyone can engage in democracy. There are still large gaps in voter turnout compared to registration rates and groups that are unregistered meaning that voting accessibility work on our campus is far from done.
Although 2020 presented challenges, it resulted in making voting as accessible as ever in terms of wide usage of mail-in ballots and many states removing the ability to cast an in-person vote. It made voting something students could do easily between work and classes versus a potential all day event you have to wait in line for. Furthermore, many politicians promised ways to address the severe inequalities that were highlighted throughout the pandemic, so it finally felt like a difference could have been made with a vote, even though these promises have not been delivered yet as we approach a full year in office post-election.
As registration is only the first step in exercising civic engagement and the right to vote, it is pivotal that we make voting as accessible as possible to those on our campus so our voter participation rates continue to increase as well. In past election years, USF made classes on election day optional to give students ample time to vote, but increasing the use of mail-in ballots and drop boxes throughout our campus would only make voting that much easier. The increase of accessibility in languages used on ballots is also huge in making voting more accessible, not just for students but for the entirety of the USF community.
The NSLVE Report broke down voter turnout by race and ethnicity at each college or university. At USF, every race and ethnicity’s voting rate increased, with the most substantial increase being that of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander identified students going from 31% in 2018 to 70% in 2020. These rates ranged from 49% to 77% from Asian identified students and students who identify as two or more races respectively. While there was a substantial increase for every race and ethnicity, there are still eligible students who are not voting. This gap in voter turnout being so drastic is concerning and speaks to systemic issues such as voter accessibility and politicians running on campaigns that may not be inclusive or representative of the needs of various community members.
It is hard to vote when you feel your vote may not matter or when the person you are voting for does not actually represent you and the issues you care about. Lack of representation in politics is a huge issue, and it directly affects students at our University as well as nationwide. While USFVotes is a non-partisan political club, we encourage students during election years to vote for people who are running on policies that align with issues that matter to them. Though it is important that everyone has the right to vote and voting is made as accessible as possible, it is understandable that students sometimes feel defeated and will not exercise that right.
By sex, female identified students had a 70% voter participation rate while male identified students had a rate of 58%. The NSLVE did not include data on other gender identities. This lack of representation leaves out an extremely important demographic within our campus, and I hope that various identity groups will be included in the breakdown of campus engagement in voting in the future. Strictly keeping political engagement within the binary excludes many students on USF’s campus and prevents us from analyzing the weight that people may hold in national elections based on their identities.
Finally, the methods USF students voted by were also reported. 79% of USF students voted not in-person, meaning by mail or voting early. This rate had a 14% increase from 2016, likely because of the amount of students from out of state as well as the role of the pandemic during the 2020 election.
Almost all of the University of San Francisco’s voter engagement rates increased, and as a University we submitted our institution for the All-In Campus Challenge for our high rates of civic engagement and voter participation. USFVotes continues to host registration drives, spread information on what is on the ballot in upcoming elections, and update the student body on what is happening on the national level in policies as well as in the local level.
While work on our campus and nationwide is far from done in terms of making voting as accessible as possible, it is important to continue to celebrate small wins like increasing our voter participation rate by nearly 20%. In the meantime, there is a school board recall election on February 15, 2022 in which non-citizens can vote in San Francisco, a huge victory in terms of local voter accessibility. As a community, USF can keep up the good work of maintaining or improving upon our voter participation rates. If you are interested in joining USFVotes and promoting civic engagement on our campus, you can follow our Instagram and Twitter, @USFVOTES.