A Macon college has been working hard to get more students to the polls. After ramped-up civic engagement initiatives, Mercer University had the highest student voter participation rate among NCAA Division 1 schools in the 2016 election.
People ages 18 to 24 have voted at lower rates than other age groups in every president election since 1962, according to a report from the U.S. Census Bureau.
However, more college students went to the polls in 2016. Voter turnout for this group increased from 45.1 in 2012 to 48.3 percent in 2016, and registered voters rose from 65.3 percent in 2012 to 68.5 percent in 2016, according to a 2017 study by Tufts University.
“The 18 to 24 demographic is really an untapped swing group that I think at some point is going to be tapped in. They could really carry the election,” said Doug Pearson, Mercer’s vice president for student affairs and dean of students.
At 56.4 percent, Mercer’s overall voting rate in the 2016 general election surpassed the rest of the nation. Eighty percent of its students were registered to vote, according to a new release from Mercer.
That turnout won Mercer the award for highest voter participation in the first SoCon Votes competition, and the school was recognized during the Nov. 4 football game. Joseph Wozniak, a 2016 Mercer graduate and former student government president, created this democratic engagement championship for schools in the NCAA Division 1 Athletic Conference, Pearson said.
Colleges signed up with the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement to track their student voter participation; created a design playbook to increase participation; and put that playbook into action. Then, the schools were ranked on their voter turnout and increase in voter turnout, according to SoCon Votes.
Emily Thompson, now a senior at Mercer, helped implement the plan with Mobilize Mercer. The school group hosted voter registration drives, held watch parties, had an election-themed battle of the bands concert, conducted polls to see which candidates were doing best, and talked to classes and student groups about the importance of voting, she said.
“There was an energy around campus that I have not seen in all the years that I have worked in higher education,” Pearson said. “For us to get over 50 percent of our students voting is impressive.”
Separately, Mercer also received the “bronze seal” in the national ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge for participation rates between 50 and 59. Pearson hopes his school can earn a silver ranking next year.
Mercer has always had voter registration drives, but last year was the first time it had a cohesive, coordinated effort advocating for everyone to get involved, he said. The university held discussions, lectures and debates on political issues and made voter registration as easy as possible for students.
More than 60 percent of Mercer’s students vote through absentee ballots, and Mercer made sure they were set up to cast their ballots, said Lauren Shinholster, Mobilizer Mercer adviser.
When she started college, Thompson was surprised at the number of people who though politics didn’t affect them and their vote didn’t mattered. She wanted to help change that mentality.
“We didn’t want students to just vote. We wanted them to be educated voters,” Pearson said. “Voter registration and participation is one of the most fundamental ways to get students to start engaging in their community.”
By participating in the SoCon Votes contest, Mercer and other colleges are able to share ideas with each other, see their initiatives and start implementing new plans, Pearson said.
Mercer is now gearing up for next year’s elections. A lot of people think it’s all over after the national election, but mid-term elections play an important role too, he said. People don’t realize how close smaller elections can get and why every vote counts, Thompson said.
“Local politics are just as important as national politics,” Thompson said. “In fact, they can have an event greater impact on our lives.”