A report of SRU student voting rates reveals that 11.6 percent of students, or 957 out of 8,363 students, voted in the 2014 midterm election. Nationally, the 2014 voting rate for all academic institutions in the study was 19.1 percent.
The data comes from the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement (NSLVE), which compares enrollment records from the National Student Clearinghouse with public voting files from Catalyst. NSLVE is an initiative from Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy and Higher Education.
David Kershaw, associate professor and chair of Slippery Rock University’s political science department, first found the NSLVE data and expected a low turnout but closer to 25 or 30 percent.
“When I saw the 11 percent. . . that’s rock bottom,” Kershaw said.
In the 2016 presidential election, 48.3 percent of students from universities that participated in NSLVE voted, reflecting the added attention toward national over local elections.
“Growing up, everyone sees the president as the most important figure, so they get sort of worked up,” Kershaw said. “But for the most part, with midterms, it’s local people that you don’t know.”
The NSLVE report states 58.6 percent of SRU students were registered to vote for the 2014 election. Of the SRU student population who was registered to vote, 19.8 percent cast a ballot for that midterm election.
Kershaw believes that the higher registration rate reflects the multiple ways Pennsylvania residents can register to vote.
“You can register when you get your driver’s license, you have an online registration, so you just basically say, ‘Yes,’ but you forget about it,” Kershaw said. “It’s not like you’re registering with the intent of voting. You’re registering because it’s easy.”
According to Kershaw, the low college student turnout during midterm elections leads to a lack of candidate visits to colleges. This semester, only one candidate on the ballot, John Fetterman for Lieutenant Governor, visited SRU.
“If you’re part of the 11 percent, they’re not going to reach out to us,” Kershaw said. “This is one of the problems with having such lower turnout. Why do they need to?”
The majority of students, 88.7 percent, voted in-person on Election Day in 2014 while 5.8 percent voted using an absentee ballot.
In order to get an absentee ballot, Pennsylvania residents must provide an excuse on their application. College students, people with physical disabilities or illnesses, military members and people working away from their municipality or celebrating a religious holiday may request an absentee ballot in Pennsylvania. Other states, including Ohio and Maryland, do not require an excuse. The added deadlines and steps in the process, such as buying stamps to mail an application pose more barriers to voting for college students.
While SRU’s population has increased 5.5 percent since 2014, Kershaw doesn’t anticipate a large change in the turnout for this November’s midterms.
“You don’t see radical shifts in people’s political behaviors without a major intervention,” Kershaw said. “We’re still drawing from the same population, so we’re not radically different than we were a couple years ago.”
As part of their advocacy project this semester, the Slippery Rock Student Government Association (SRSGA) social justice committee is focusing on increasing student turnout for the midterm elections. So far, the committee held voter registration tables in the ARC, Smith Student Center and Bailey Library.
“Regardless of your political party, your affiliations, your views, we just really feel that it’s important for students to understand that their vote matters and your vote expresses your voice and a change you want to see,” Kennedy Moore, SGA vice president of diversity and inclusion, said.
SGA had absentee ballot applications available in their office in Smith Student Center Suite and offered to pay for the postage for both the application and absentee ballot. Absentee ballots for Pennsylvania residents are due to a voter’s county office by Oct. 30, and the completed ballot must be mailed back by Nov. 2.
“It’s a very quick turnaround, which is why we’re emphasizing people to apply for the ballot now so that way it does get submitted and counted on time,” Moore said.
According to Moore, NextGen will provide two vans to transport students to the polls on Nov. 6. At press time, SRSGA has not announced additional plans regarding transportation this Election Day.
To see the full NSLVE report on SRU student voter turnout from 2014, click here.