WU voting rate for 2020 election up eight percentage points since last cycle, to record 71%

| Managing Editor
Masked students in jackets stand in line on a brick path with a brick building shown on the left and a paved road on the rightMorad Suliman | Student Life

Students in line to vote in the 2020 elections outside of the Athletic Center

Seventy-one percent of eligible Washington University students voted in the 2020 election, more than four points higher than the national college average and an 8.4 point increase from the 2016 campus rate, according to new data from the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement. 

The 71% mark was a record for the University, The Source reported this week. The NSLVE study, from Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life, found that 82.9% of eligible Washington University students registered to vote, meaning that the “yield rate” of students who followed through was 85.4%. Nationally, this figure reached 80%, a significant increase from the previous election cycle’s 69%.

“It’s always exciting when [turnout] exceeds our expectations,” said Theresa Kouo, the associate director for civic engagement at the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement. “As an institute, we were hoping, ‘Let’s increase by 5%,’ which is pretty substantial if you think about it, to increase turnout by 5%. But the fact that it increased so significantly, that was very surprising to me and very encouraging.”

One of the major factors is that young people and college students are paying closer attention to politics, Kuou said.

“They understand that in order to affect change, you have to be involved in the political process, and that starts with voting,” she said. “And so I think, given the calls around racial injustice, around climate change and these necessary reforms, that people are paying attention and making their voices heard through their votes.”

Kouo explained that previous NSLVE research has indicated that campus culture is a key factor differentiating high-turnout and low-turnout campuses. 

“I think over the last few years WashU has really done a great job at developing the campus climate and culture where discussion around political topics is encouraged,” she said. “I think it’s really important that as a campus community we engage in really hard conversations, and I think more and more of that’s happening over the years, so I would say that campus climate has a lot to do with [the increased turnout].”

While student voting has increased across all demographics, certain discrepancies remain. For example, white students vote at a higher rate than students of color both nationally and at Washington University, Kouo said.

“One of the things that we’re thinking about in partnership with WashU Votes student leaders is, how can we be more intentional about outreach to different communities to understand what are the barriers to voting and participation for them, and how can we support student leaders in those communities to help promote active engagement in our democracy?” she said.

Some students, both at Washington University and across the country, have long expressed doubts about the efficacy of electoral politics.

“A healthy distrust of systems is important because what that does is it causes the general public to pause and ask questions about how can these systems work better for all of us,” Kouo said. “I think when students raise these questions about why doesn’t it work, it’s a really great way to engage in conversation about a vision for what can be possible.”

While acknowledging the importance of those conversations, Kouo emphasized the importance of students using their power to vote, particularly in smaller local elections.

“There have been so many elections in recent history and further where elections are determined by just a few votes,” Kouo said. “So if five of your friends say, ‘I’m not going to vote,’ those five friends could have determined many elections locally in St. Louis.”

Kouo said that the energy around voting and elections on campus already is exciting.

“With 2022 coming up and the midterm elections, already the type of energy that we’re seeing across campus from people who are really interested in getting involved in WashU Votes, even though it’s not a presidential election year..is really exciting, and I hope that our institute can continue to encourage a culture where students are not just thinking about the presidential election, but all elections up and down the ballot every year,” Kouo said.

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