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University of Michigan students shattered voting records in 2020

A sign to register and vote is posted outside Ann Arbor City Clerk's satellite office at the University of Michigan Museum of Art on Nov. 3, 2020. (Meredith Bruckner)

ANN ARBOR – University of Michigan students broke their own voter turnout record in the 2020 election -- jumping to 78%, according to a report by the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University.

This was up 18 percentage points from 2016, when U-M student turnout stood at 60%. On a collegiate level, U-M surpassed that of the 1,200 college campuses in the Tufts study, which had an average voter turnout of 66%.

According to a U-M news release, voter turnout among U-M students also “far outpaced that of all Americans.” The national voter turnout average jumped from 61% to 67% in the last election, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

The record-breaking turnout was a result of several campus initiatives, including the student-led nonpartisan project Turn Up Turnout.

Professor of public policy and political science, Edie Goldenberg, served as a central adviser for the get out the vote initiative and said while she had hoped the turnout would be 75%, she expected it to be closer to 65%.

“To surpass our aspirational target in the middle of a pandemic is both surprising and exciting,” Goldenberg said in a statement. “This was an all-campus effort. Our student volunteers worked very hard. I am grateful for the faculty, staff and university leaders who pulled together to help students get the information they needed in order to vote and have their voices heard. I’m also grateful to our city clerk, who was a wonderful partner and a real hero in the face of daunting health challenges in 2020.”

President of Turn Up Turnout in 2020, Josiah Walker said the success of the campaign was due to collaborative efforts between students, university units, industry leaders, elected officials and nonprofits.

U-M student Josiah Walker and a fellow student volunteer at the Party at the Polls event outside Rackham Auditorium on Nov. 6, 2018 (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

“We synthesized local, state and federal election laws, executed a dynamic voter engagement plan, and, most importantly, delivered groundbreaking student voting results,” Walker said in a statement. “Our ability to think and learn from past experiences made it possible for us to be successful in the face of the ever-changing voter registration laws and the pandemic.

“With the state of Michigan being a swing state and Gen Z being one of its largest voting blocs, University of Michigan students played a key role in the 2020 election and beyond. Each year keeps getting better.”

In addition to the Turn Up Turnout initiative, U-M was a participant in the Big Ten Voting Challenge, launched in 2017 by Big Ten school leaders to get out the vote and led on-campus by the Ginsberg Center.

“It is really gratifying to see U-M’s registration and voting rates for 2020, which are up across the board,” Dave Waterhouse, interim co-director of the Ginsberg Center said in a statement. “A lot of folks on our campus have worked hard to make that happen.

“The work to involve students in our democracy at all levels, and throughout the year, will continue as we build on the momentum of the 2020 election season. This work matters, now more than ever.”

In 2020, voting was made more accessible to students through the opening of the Ann Arbor City Clerk’s Satellite Office at the U-M Museum of Art. The project, a collaboration between U-M’s Creative Campus Voting Project and City Clerk Jacqueline Beaudry, successfully registered 5,412 voters and collected 8,501 ballots.

A look at the new Ann Arbor City Council satellite office in the UMMA. (Sarah M. Parlette / WDIV)

“Our goal was to make it very clear, easy and welcoming for students to vote,” Stamps School of Art & Design faculty member and co-lead of the Creative Campus Voting Project, Hannah Smotrich, said in a statement. “We were able to transform a city clerk’s office, which is traditionally a bureaucratic, institutional space, into something that is beautiful and dynamic—we hope that seeing a space like this inspires students to vote.”

According to U-M, another satellite office collaboration is in the works with UMMA for 2022 as well as a brand-new pop-up office on North Campus in the Duderstadt Gallery.

Another effort that engaged students on campus was the university’s Democracy & Debate Theme Semester, which featured various speakers, courses and programming and engaged millions of users. The work is continuing for the 2021-2022 school year.

Additional findings about U-M student voting from the IDHE study, according to a U-M release:

  • U-M student voter registration rates increased four percentage points from 84% in 2016 to 88% in 2020.
  • More U-M students followed through in voting. The percentage of registered students who voted (yield rate) increased from more than 71.% to 88%.
  • How students voted changed significantly between 2016 and 2020. Eighty-one percent of U-M students voted not in-person, an increase by 50 percentage points. In-person voting on election day fell by 48 percentage points to 15%.
  • Voting rates increased for all U-M students, class years, education level and field of study.

About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.