This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
This year's presidential election is unprecedented in many ways. A major question is whether youth voter turnout will follow suit. Traditionally, youth voter turnout is dismally low. There was a steady decline in youth voter turnout between 1972–2000, with a spike in 1992 and a large increase starting in 2008. About half of all eligible voters age 18–29 turned out to vote in 2008 and 2012 elections. In 2012, the youth vote was pivotal in winning Barack Obama the four key states of Virginia, Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Millennials will comprise an astounding 31 percent of the eligible voters in the 2016 election, almost tied with the number of baby boomers. The "silent generation" (age 71-plus) is the most politically active and their political ideology is generally opposite to that of millennials. A 2016 Pew study shows that millennials are less interested in politics than Gen Xers (ages 36-51) and baby boomers (ages 52-70). Other studies have reported that millennials are generally less informed about politics than older generations. The overwhelming perception of the millennial generation is they are apathetic and entitled.
My experience is contradictory to the popularized negative view of apathetic millennials after working with thousands of students over the past 15 years at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. Data and my personal interactions with millennials show that they are arguably the most committed group to positive social change. Eighty-four percent of millennials feel that making a difference in the world is more important than professional recognition. For example, most prefer to work for a company with a social-driven mission, and 81 percent have donated money, goods or services.
Clearly, millennials are passionate about issues but don't see politics as an avenue for change. Higher education is the U.S. institution that must shift this trend and politically engage future generations. The data shows that if students vote at 18, they are more likely to vote the rest of their lives.
With nearly 21 million students attending college, the role of higher education to engage students in the political process is of increasingly paramount importance. Every election year, Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) groups descend upon college campuses. Leading up to the current presidential election, there are myriad of voter registration drives on college campuses hosted by national organizations such as Turbovote, Rock the Vote, Voterise and the Andrew Goodman Foundation.
Best practices for college GOTV efforts include funding organized registration drives, registering students at various events, infusing political engagement into curriculum and establishing on-campus polling stations. One shining example of GOTV efforts took place at Northwestern University in 2012 when students and administrators registered 98 percent of their incoming freshman by registering students to vote when they picked up their freshman university ID cards. This year Bard College has registered 80 percent of their freshman at orientations.
In the 1998 Amendments to the Higher Education Act, the federal government required universities and colleges to "make a good faith effort" to educate and distribute voter registration forms to transient students. Instead of relying on outside organizations to drive GOTV efforts on college campuses, higher education leaders should examine internal university processes that could facilitate campus-wide voter registration.
A more comprehensive strategy, as opposed to the current piecemeal approach of outside groups, could optimize outreach efforts to reach more students. University leaders could be driving the efforts within their university structures.
Utah institutions of higher education could incorporate system-wide voter registration as part of incoming freshman orientations and/or when students pick up their college IDs. Utah higher education leadership can lead the nation in future election cycles by committing to infuse voter registration in freshman orientations, campus ID processes and university-wide GOTV efforts.
On the night of the first 2016 presidential debate, more than 200 students gathered at the Hinckley Institute's presidential debate watch party. The students not only watched the 2.5 hours of the Utah gubernatorial and presidential debates, but they stayed long after to participate in group and individual discussions.
Millennials are engaged, but higher education must facilitate better voter registration efforts within university processes. Higher education is equipped to harness millennials' passion for social change and redirect it towards empowerment in the political arena.
Thomas Jefferson advocated that an educated citizenry is a vital requisite to our survival as a free people. I would add that an engaged citizenry is even more critical. In Fareed Zakaria's reflection on America in the post-modern world, he called higher education "America's best industry." It is time America's best industry, particularly in Utah, truly engage our youth to be lifelong, active participants in the democratic process.
Courtney Hills McBeth is associate director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah and a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania.