Colleges should just require students to be voters

colleges-require-votingHere’s the most straightforward way to get young people to vote: make them. That is, we should push America’s institutions of higher education to require voting as a condition of enrollment and prerequisite to graduation.

After all, schools already impose a vast array of rules on their students that aren’t purely academic. For example, Liberty University dictates hairstyles and requires attendance at “convocation” three times a week, while Goucher College compels its undergrads to temporarily leave the country to study overseas. Yale University is even imposing carbon prices on campus.

So why not get colleges and universities to require their students to be voters? As a recent piece in Washington Monthly explains:

Seeking to help counter those trends, many colleges encourage their students to vote by offering campus polling sites, voter registration forms in dorm move-in packets, candidate forums, and so forth. While those efforts are all well and good, it’s also clear that they’re falling short. That’s why it might be time to try some sticks along with the carrots to boost youth turnout.

Specifically, colleges and universities should require their students to vote as a condition of their enrollment. Instead of just nudging students to vote, make them do it. Graduate them into voters like the schools mean it.

The campus-by-campus proposal reflects the same hyper-local strategy of decentralized, cascading victories. A key difference is that no new laws would be necessary for a private college or university to require its students to vote. That’s a crucial built-in advantage.

For advocates such as President Barack Obama who support an even stronger measure—a new national law to legally require everyone eligible to vote—the campus-based strategy also raises the following possibility:

If the movement spreads, particularly to junior and community colleges, it’s not outlandish to envision it cascading into a voting obligation of some kind at the national level. If the ramifications of college students voting at dramatically higher rates scare some, the most defensible and cleanest counter-strategy would actually be universal turnout of all groups through a new national mandate – thus leveling the playing field.

As headlines in the coming months will warn, our democracy is currently ranking near the bottom among advanced nations in terms of voter participation. A new movement to require college students across the country to vote could be the catalyst that finally shakes up this status quo.

For the full article, which explains the legal rationales, see “Voting Should Be Mandatory on America’s College Campuses,” Washington Monthly (2016).