Why Not Register Your Students to Vote?

Fun (research-backed) fact: An informational voter registration presentation in the classroom increases voter registration and turnout rates.


More specifically, as determined in a 2016 study performed by Elizabeth Bennion and Daniel Nickerson, either a student or professor presenting voter registration information increased overall voter registration rates by 6 percentage points and voter turnout rates by about 2.6 percentage points.


You might have heard that college-aged people are an interesting age cohort in terms of voting behaviors. Even though millennials continue to closely approach the baby boomers’ electorate power, at least by the number of eligible voters in each age cohort, millennials simply do not vote in comparable numbers.


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Lower turnout number are not necessarily unwarranted, either. Millennials, particularly college-aged millennials, face certain challenges that other age cohorts do not.

  1. Students are extremely mobile, with many students moving two or three times a year to and away from school.

  2. Students live in two communities, their home communities and school communities, and the effect of living in these two communities decreases the inclination to participate in either elections.

  3. Voting is habit-forming, and a person who has not voted before is more likely to not vote in the future. Students who recently turned 18 have not voted before, typically.

  4. Being new to the voting process, moving so frequently, and living in different communities makes it difficult to have enough functional voter information. For example, many students I have talked to are not aware that they have to re-register to vote every time they move within Travis County, even if they now live across the hall from their previous dorm. Even if they know that they do not know this information, they do not know where to look to be informed. Most importantly, some counties are better than others at supplying voter information, so access to information is not even uniform for all students.


But this is not new information. Voting behaviors among young people are continuously remarked, and while we also know via field experiments and studies that telling a group that they historically do not vote in large numbers can depress voter turnout (Keane & Nickerson, 2015), everyone--university administration, the media, elected officials, baby boomers, millennials themselves--keeps telling millennials the same story: Millennials don’t vote.


Exhibit A: Type “Millennials don’t vote” into your Google search engine and you’ll be flooded with articles which tell you the exact same thing.




So if we are all aware of a prominent issue concerning representation in the electorate who actually cast a ballot, what are we doing to actually address the issue?


Personally, I look to demonstrated effects in order to guide my plans for solutions. If voter registration and voter turnout can increase due to introducing voter registration into classrooms, then why not push for voter registration and presentations in classrooms? Public universities and community colleges are already required by the 1998 Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965 to make a good faith effort to distribute voter registration forms to students attending classes (HEA, Title IV, Section 487(a)(23)) . Why not align university mandates and those good faith efforts with what studies suggest works?


In addition to the legislative sanction, in-class registration has many advantages than other Get Out The Vote (GOTV) methods. Traditionally, students will set up voter registration tables on campus, which draws a lot of students. However, tabling does not have that much reach for students for a variety of reasons.

  1. Tabling opportunities are restricted to certain locations. Access to other locations usually require students who are associated with specific majors reserving a space, and not all majors participate in civic engagement activities equally. Therefore, access is limited.

  2. Many students avoid all tables, possibly unknowingly avoiding a convenient registration location.

  3. Tablers who ask students passing by if they are registered to vote risk being seen as aggressive tablers by students and administration, and being seen as aggressive by administration can ban tabling activities for a couple of weeks.

  4. Students walk familiar routes on campus, so voter registration tables do not have the same capacity to reach as many students at random as possible. However, there are also advantages to consistent tabling locations (e.g. known location to interested students), which make varying tabling locations unfavorable.


In the past, TX Votes, a student-led organization on the University of Texas at Austin’s campus, has attempted voter registration in classrooms, but outreach has always been reliant on students personally asking professors.


I emailed roughly 750 professors on behalf of TX Votes asking professors to host voter registration and presentations in their classrooms. While I tried to stress the low midterm turnout for UT students in the past, I always stressed how registration was optional for professors foremost (people are generally more receptive to your mission if they believe their support is voluntary). Additionally, while I could not personally register or present information in most of the interested classes, I knew that other VDRs could as long as professors knew about this service. Consider my role in voter registration in classes similar to what most entrepreneurs have to do with new industries and untapped markets; I had to alert people about a service in order to create the demand for it.


If anyone would have asked why I emailed that many professors (and I am still emailing more!), I would have defaulted to an instrumental reason-- “I’m playing the long game; I can use interest from these professors as a recruitment method for my thesis project about student voting behaviors.” However, I would not have reached out that much if I did not believe that the research did not demonstrate a real impact on student behaviors. This mission drives me.




Not everyone shares in this mission, though. While I got a lot of support from professors across all majors, the majority of professors either were not interested or did not respond at all. The most frustrating correspondence I had with professors came from people openly hostile to voter registration in classes, claiming that what I proposed was not only inappropriate in classes, but also exploitive of students, intrusive for classrooms, and a distraction from the educational mission--their words, not mine. “What’s wrong with tabling in front of greg or the union?,” one professor asked me, suggesting that a tried-and-true GOTV tabling location that only helped turn out 18% of the UT student body in the 2014 midterm election might be any more effective for this midterm. Nothing’s wrong with tabling, but if UT wants to seriously claim that “what starts here changes the world”, then it should start exploring new, initiative practices that are effective in achieving a certain vision.  


Despite the fact that voter registration is explicitly tied to the educational mission of this public university, as indicated by an act of Congress, professors continue to value their class time and curriculum over citizenship and civic engagement. These later values are arguably the most fundamental values for a public educational institution. John Dewey, who was widely influential on educational theory and education in public institutions, routinely tied democracy and civic engagement to education. Dewey’s pragmatic philosophy held that schools taught children how to live and be good citizens, not just random, disjointed facts. The sanitization of civics from the traditional classroom experience is the real distraction from the educational mission.


Professors continue to be concerned primarily about their time, and understandably so; time is a scarce resource for teachers at every university and grade level. Yet, to continue to preference one’s own curriculum over civics asserts that one’s own syllabus is more important than the civic life students lead inside and outside the classroom. After all, the decision to exclude civics from the classroom due to limited time is a value statement. Implicitly, instructors state that in regards to limited resources such as time, they must first address their curriculum before anything else, including civics and voter engagement.


I firmly believe that professors offer a disservice to their classrooms by so vehemently and even nonchalantly refusing voter registration in their classrooms. I do not expect instructors to have the same valuation of civics and voter engagement that I do. That expectation is naive and misguided.


However, whenever professors suggest that voter registration is inappropriate in classrooms, perhaps they should just say that they believe voter registration is inappropriate. Inserting belief into their statements offers more reflections and dialogue into their responses. Instead of denying the educational mission as Congress and educational theorists like Dewey see it, instructors should more genuinely question their role in the educational mission and how they either aid or impede it.