Campus Early Voting Sites Increase Youth Turnout

A laptop with a "VOTE" sticker flanked by a stack of textbooks and an iced coffee, mounted on a piece of graph paper with various data points

It might seem obvious, but increasing the ways in which voters can cast their ballots is usually a good way to increase turnout. In the midst of a tumultuous year, states across the country made voting easier than ever by expanding mail voting, early voting and polling hours. But this increased ballot access does not affect all groups evenly — and for some, additional voting methods determine whether or not their voices are heard.

In today’s Data Dive, we’re looking at a study from the Election Law Journal that shows one group in particular that significantly benefits from expanding early voting: youth voters. The study, “Mobilizing the Youth Vote? Early Voting on College Campuses,” analyzed the impact of establishing early vote centers on eight public college campuses in Florida for the 2018 midterm elections, and we break down some of the most important findings below. 

Here are the key takeaways:

1. New early voting opportunities significantly increased youth turnout.

For this study, researchers looked at the eight counties where new early voting locations had been added on campuses. They compared the overall changes in turnout among all voters, and among just young voters, and contrasted them across counties to compare the effects. Overall, in seven of the eight counties, the presence of a new early vote location on campus increased turnout among 18- to 20-year-olds by ~5% points compared to adjacent counties that did not add sites. This increase significantly mitigated drop-off in turnout between the 2016 and 2018 general elections, which tend to be very large in midterm elections.

Notably, Palm Beach County installed a new site but did not see a significant increase in youth turnout. But according to county election officials, they did not advertise the new location sufficiently. This makes the case that voter education, then, is a key part of expanding ballot access and reforms that increase voting locations are worthless if the voters in the community do not know they can take advantage of the new resource.

2. More young voters chose to vote early when there was a new, convenient site on campus.

The study also looked at how young voters chose to cast their ballots in 2018, and it’s clear that convenience matters. Although various methods of voting were available for students in Florida in 2016, the presence of an on-campus early voting site in 2018 had a significant impact on how many students chose to vote during the two-week in-person early voting period. Researchers found that in four of the eight counties, the percentage of student voters who cast their ballots early significantly increased in 2018, and in one county, early voting among 18-20-year-olds increased by over 10%. Clearly, the location of early voting centers matters — and the convenience of a campus location expanded the methods with which young voters could cast their ballots. 

3. Investing in expanded voting methods gets results — and diversifies the electorate.

When Florida officials considered expanding early voting sites, they questioned whether the effort would actually have an impact on youth voters and if reducing the barriers to voting that they face would result in increased turnout. Looking at the results, the study shows that making it easier to vote does in fact have an effect on whether young voters will cast their ballots. Additionally, it’s important to note that measuring the impact of these new sites just by how many voters used them obscures key details about who makes up this electorate. Compared to non-campus sites, these new campus early-voting sites saw lower turnout overall, but they resulted in significant increases in youth turnout. 

More research is needed to assess the effects of expanded early voting locations on the overall population, and that question is beyond the scope of this study. But when it comes to young voters, changes in policy that make voting easier and investment in education and awareness campaigns do have a significant effect. These efforts make young voters more likely to cast ballots and to utilize all the voting methods available to them. “We find evidence that many young registrants, who tend to be low-propensity voters especially in non-presidential elections, turned out in 2018 because information and transportation barriers were lowered, making the voting process more convenient,” the study concludes. It seems that one solution to low youth turnout in our elections is the most obvious one: make it easier to vote and make sure that young people know that convenient voting methods are available to them.