Take Note: Nancy Thomas On What Colleges Should Do To Help Students Vote

Sep 18, 2020

Nancy Thomas, the Director of the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University

Nancy Thomas is the Director of the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University. She discussed the challenges student voters could face in the upcoming presidential election, and what colleges and universities can do to eliminate barriers and motivate students to get out and vote. 

This interview is from the Democracy Works podcast, a collaboration between WPSU and the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. The Institute’s Jenna Spinelle interviewed Nancy Thomas.

TRANSCRIPT: 

Jenna Spinelle:

Nancy Thomas, thank you so much for joining us on Democracy Works.

Nancy Thomas:

Jenna, thanks so much for having me.

Jenna Spinelle:

So lots to talk about when it comes to student voting and this fall in particular and even out beyond that, some kind of higher level issues. But I think maybe to set the stage here, it would be helpful to orient our listeners to all the different really types of college students and voting scenarios that there could be. I think a lot of us maybe think of the stereotypical student who goes away to a four year university, that type of thing, but there's a whole host of college students out there going to all types of different institutions. So can you give us a sense of what that landscape looks like and how it relates to how college students cast their ballots?

Nancy Thomas:

Sure. So what I always like to say is college students are not a monolithic group, and that is the truth. They are not all 18 to 24 year old, they are not all residing on campus in a bucolic setting and in a dormitory, and in fact about 45% of college students attend community colleges, I'd say about 20% more are commuters. And so not all students are having that residential experience. That said, many students still have the option of voting near campus or back in near their parents address. And back in the 1970s, there was a pivotal Supreme Court ruling that said that college students are allowed to vote where they attend school. And since then that has caused some confusion. But the point is that if students are residing on or near campus, they do have the option of voting there or voting back at their parents' address.

Jenna Spinelle:

So do we know, looking back historically, where students do tend to vote or where they have voted? How many are choosing to vote on campus versus at their parents' address?

Nancy Thomas:

We didn't know until we launched the study that we run, which is called the “National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement.” It's basically a very large study of college and university student voting rates. From that, we are at the mercy of the quality of the data that is provided both by the universities to this independent entity, which is called the “National Student Clearing House.” And also the States and the accuracy of the records that the states collect or the local municipalities collect. So it's a little bit tricky to know, but we do know that when given a choice between registering at home and registering from campus, students at this time, register more at home. We think that's a problem. And we think it's a problem because we think voting in person yields higher voting rates than voting by mail or absentee ballot. This is a reflection not so much on college students and their willingness or interest in voting. It's more of a reflection on voting conditions in this country, which are unnecessarily confusing for all Americans, and discriminatory for many, including residential college students.

Jenna Spinelle:

Yeah. And so how do the colleges see this? We've just come to the tail end of the census, and I know across higher ed there was a big push to get college students to complete their census based on their campus address, because there are some financial incentives tied to colleges being able to report that they have students living on campus and things like this. But there's not necessarily that same financial incentive there, of course, when it comes to voting. So how do colleges see their role? Do they kind of think that it's incumbent upon them to help students register to vote and actually vote, whether that is on campus or voting absentee or voting by mail back at home?

Nancy Thomas:

Well, the answer to that question is tied in with the answer to the question, how do colleges and university leaders see the civic mission of their institution? And that, of course, has been in flux, I would say, over the last 25 years in particular in higher education. I'm happy to get into that. I think that colleges and universities have been very reticent to wade into political waters and have kept the civic mission fairly benign, if not steadfastly neutral. There is a lot of confusion over the difference between political and partisan. And I think the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably on campuses and they shouldn't be. It is the job of higher education to wade into political and public policy issues, and to shed a light on the status of American democracy. And yet it is not the role of campuses to wade into partisan issues. What has happened in public life, not necessarily exclusively on campuses is that voting itself has become partisan. And it, it shouldn't. Voting is non-partisan. Both parties should care equally about representation and the level of participation of their constituents. So part of the challenge with higher education is just an overarching question, why are we here, what are we doing, and what is our responsibility to the health and future of democracy? So then when you ask, "Are they equally committed to voting as they might have been to populating the data for the census?" The answer is probably an “it depends.” There are some campuses that are very dedicated and there are some that are not. And in my view, various forms of participation, including voting are a means to an end. They are a way to get campuses to educate for democracy. And so one of the things that we're always pushing for is keep voting in context. It is part of the educational mission.

Jenna Spinelle:

You were talking before about the civic mission of higher education and the difference between political and partisan. And I think for people who work on college campuses, that probably resonates, but for listeners who might not work directly in higher ed, can you give an example of what that civic mission is and how this business of political and partisan gets in the way of that?

Nancy Thomas:

The civic mission in higher education has waxed and waned for centuries really. And Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin all wanted a public education system because they knew that a strong democracy would require participatory and educated citizenry. And so part of the role of higher education is to ensure the future and health of democracy. That doesn't mean we don't also educate for careers, career preparation, and even the economic security of this country. We do. But it's not an “either/or” it's a “both/and.” And so one piece of the reticence about educating for democracy has to do with, well how many hours in a day are there? And how can we do everything? The answer of course is to build it into all of the disciplines, to help the sciences understand that they have a high level of public relevance, and that students should be learning that public relevance at the same time that they learn, for example, biology. All of those things are important, both in terms of the nuts and bolts of the discipline, but also its context in a democratic society. What happens though is that these curricula, they get so full. People say, "Well, I don't have time, or I'm not equipped. I don't know how to have these conversations about the state of democracy." And yet it's not as hard as it sounds. So for example, at Tufts University, we worked with the engineering department to embed conversations about publicly relevant issues into the first year curriculum. So for example, some of the students had good discussions about self-cars and what are the ethics behind that? What are the public input implications? Those are important things for those students to be able to do. Democracy is not just the Bailey Wick of political science majors, or arts and sciences. Another part of the problem I think is, well, we don't really know what a strong and healthy democracy looks like. We haven't set that point on the horizon toward which we're steering the ship. And we think that that's not as hard as it looks also. For example, I think we could all agree that we want our democracy to be participatory. We want people to participate in it, whether it's community problem solving or service or running for office or voting. So if we can at least agree on participatory as an attribute of a strong democracy, then we can get to this issue of voting or talking about political issues.

Emily Reddy:

If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Take Note on WPSU. Today’s interview is with Nancy Thomas, the Director of the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education, which is part of the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University. Today’s conversation is from the Democracy Works podcast, a collaboration between WPSU and the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. Interviewer Jenna Spinelle talked with Thomas about the challenges facing student voters in the upcoming presidential election.

Jenna Spinelle:

I want to turn to this issue of voting, particularly this fall. We've been speaking already about in general, some of the complications around college student voting and all of that is of course amplified even more so now that we're in the midst of a pandemic. You mentioned before about this notion of universities not feeling like they have enough time to really explore these issues. And I wonder how that might translate to voting this fall.

Nancy Thomas:

I feel for institutional leaders, presidents, chancellors right now. I think they are facing literally a fire hose of problems and decisions. And I do not want to add to their plates, but I also cannot move this election. It is happening and it's significant, and arguably one of the most significant elections in our recent history. And it's also now. It's happening. So I don't think that they have a choice, and that's the reality. I think it's human nature to do what's urgent and not important. We just always kick the can on what's important. It's just the way we all are. And I'm asking institutional leaders not to do that. I'm asking faculty not to do that. Faculty are also facing a lot of pressure. They are making their courses online, they're learning new technologies, they're trying to figure out how to build cohesion and learning communities and students who are physically distanced. They also face a lot of pressure. And yet I'm also asking them to ramp up their level of involvement, particularly faculty.

Jenna Spinelle:

All right. And that's not even to say anything about the levels of voter suppression that we're seeing play out here. From where you sit, how do those issues figure into this picture of college students voting?

Nancy Thomas:

Well, as you can imagine, I think they're incredibly significant. However, I'd like to point out that voting in this country historically has been a mess. It is inconsistent. It is confusing. Every state has their own rules. There are not enough federal standards. And as a result, one state will allow a student to walk in and vote flashing a student ID, and another state will require them to have an in-state issued form of identification and some kind of notarized evidence that they reside there. At least for mail in voting. That's that's one of the things on the table is to what extent we have to notarize our forms of identification. So between confusion, extreme confusion and unnecessary barriers, it's pretty hard not to look at the system as suppressive. Then when you combine that with what is happening on the ground in poor communities and communities of color, and the difficulties of mobile populations like college students, then you see a whole other layer of inconvenience that just cannot be described as anything else but suppression.

Jenna Spinelle:

Yeah. So are there things that the universities can be doing to help smooth some of these waters or help ease some of these access issues that their students might be facing?

Nancy Thomas:

Yes there are. There are some very practical things that institutions can do, and then there are some, what I might call, more aspirational things that they can do. On the practical level, they can ensure that students have the identification that they need to prove their residency. Now, keep in mind that when I go to vote, I have to prove both my identity, I am who I say I'm, and also my residency. I have a legal right to vote in this district. For most people, that's not all that hard because you use your driver's license. It's been issued by the state government, and it's got my address on it. And so it's not very hard for me personally to do. But a college student might be attending school far away from home or out of state. And for them, they have to prove that they are who they say they are, and also that they have a legal right to vote in that physical location. So one thing that campuses can do is they can provide the evidence that students need to prove their residency, and that can be done in a number of ways. They can work with local officials and say, "We will provide you with an enrollment list," or they can create something that the University of New Hampshire created the secretary of state in New Hampshire. It's a little app, and the app allows students just put their name in and show it, and they could screenshot it for mail in voting and they can flash it when they're voting in person. And it just is something that comes out of the registrar's office and proves that that student is currently enrolled and at that institution. My understanding is now all of the schools in New Hampshire have the ability to create that app and it's not very hard to do. It sounds daunting, but it's not. And we can work with campuses to get them the technology, the coding behind creating that app very easily. We're working with the University of New Hampshire to do it.

On the more aspirational side, why not use this incredibly confusing and difficult election to fix some of the underlying election problems? So for example, we know in five States that voting by mail works. Well, why don't we make that work in every state? There is no reason why we cannot vote by mail. These claims of voter suppression are unfounded. There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud, which might be an imposter, somebody being an imposter, somebody voting in one district and then going to the next district. It just doesn't happen. And when it's something like 0.003% of voters where that comes up and even that is probably an overstatement. So it is not a problem. I want to reiterate: It is not a problem, and we should not be fixing things that are not a problem. So mail in voting is a really good idea, and it's something that we could advocate for.

Along with some other reforms, such as early voting. Early voting in person is a smart thing because then people can spread out. We need physical distancing in this election, let's advocate for early voting. Let's advocate for same day voting and same day registration. That will help overcome some of these inconvenience problems. Let's advocate for enforcement of the help Americans vote act, which is a federal act that says that when I go and get my driver's license, I can automatically register to vote. Let's enforce that. It's not enforced in all states and territories and the district of Columbia. Although I think it is enforced in the district of Columbia.

So those are just some of the many reforms that I think we can do. What we are asking for in a memorandum that we published with fair elections, legal networks, program campus vote project, and also with the Andrew Goodman Foundation, is that presidents use their stature in the state to advocate for better voting laws. For better voting conditions. And that is something that presidents don't like to do. They don't know that that's their role, and yet they all have offices of government affairs. Put them to work. And then when they need to be visible, be visible. They also need to be visible advocates for students. They need to set a tone around elections. They need to get involved. We've done a lot of research on campuses that have unpredicted high voting rates, crazy high voting rates, and on those campuses, the presidents are visible. They are out there. They're talking to students. Some of them teach courses. So it's time for presidents to get involved, and I apologize for the difficulty because of the circumstances, but it's actually because of the circumstances that they need to step it up.

Jenna Spinelle:

Earlier this year we did it in an interview with Dan Smith, a voting scholar at the University of Florida, And he had done some research on early in person voting among college students. And not only did they vote more, but they also enjoyed the experience more from a qualitative perspective, because just what you were saying. They could go kind of one they wanted, I think they even had pizza parties and encouraged people to come to the polls on a Thursday night or something, as opposed to whenever they would have to try to squeeze it in between classes. So yeah, I think there is a growing body of data out there about some of these sorts of things. But-

Nancy Thomas:

Yeah. So the point there is really well taken. And that is that voting is a social act. Preparing to vote is a social act. If I'm a member of the acapella group, I go to vote with my acapella group friends. It is social. And social cohesion on campus is such a critical underlying condition, not just for voting, but for even talking politics. And our research says that the most important thing for campuses to do is talk politics, to talk about policy issues, to use various structures to have conversations about public issues. And yet you can't talk about things that are polarizing or divisive unless you have this underlying social cohesion. So what of course happens in a pandemic? People are isolated. They're physically distanced from each other. And so we have to find new mechanisms to build social cohesion so that students can talk to each other and they can vote in some kind of, "I feel like I'm in this with others," way.

Jenna Spinelle:

Yeah. And you mentioned the example in New Hampshire of the app that they worked with the secretary of state to create. Are there other things you're seeing percolating right now about schools that are thinking about this question and maybe coming up with some innovative ways to build this social cohesion around voter registration and around voting itself?

Nancy Thomas:

It's a little bit early to tell what campuses are going to be doing here and now under these incredibly, hopefully unique, circumstances. We usually divide voting into two categories. One is the mechanics of voting. What are the barriers to voting? What are the mechanics? What do I need in the way of IDs? How am I going to physically get to the polls? How far away is the polling place? Those are the mechanics of voting. And that is largely what the memorandum to the presidents is all about. But there's a whole other side to voting, and that is what motivates people to vote.

One of the things about our data, which I don't think anybody has been able to show before our data is that college students actually register to vote. There's all this push for students to register. Well they do register. They register at rates commensurate with the general population, maybe even a little bit higher. It's a little hard to measure registration rates out in the general population. But what they aren't doing is they aren't following through. So in a midterm election, a very small percent, less than 50%, around 50% in 2018, and far less than that in 2014, actually turned out to vote after they had been registered. So there's some kind of gap happening here between when I register and whether I actually follow through. And that is where campuses need to put their efforts is motivating students. That then goes to the role of the president in saying, "This is important." In setting the tone. It goes to the role of faculty in embedding political conversations in their classroom. And of just making sure that there is a sense of cohesion and excitement on campus to motivate people to vote. Now this year it's even more important because they have to be motivated to work really hard to overcome these barriers. So the two sides of voting are really important. The mechanical side, but also the motivational side.

Jenna Spinelle:

And so you were talking earlier about university presidents, chancellors, high level leaders using their leverage, their clout that they have as maybe the better way to think about it, to help push state and local election officials to help remove some of these barriers students have to voting. And I guess I'm wondering from the other side of that, how receptive are the secretaries of state and county election directors and these types of folks? Are they generally open to these university leaders? If and when these meetings do happen, or these conversations do happen, I know there's probably some element of the political versus partisan here and universities not wanting to do some of these things because they wait, they're worried about political backlash and all of this. But thinking about the government side of things, what do things look like from their perspective, and how do they think about their relationships with universities?

Nancy Thomas:

Yeah. I don't think I know the answer to that entirely. I will say that I've talked to some secretaries of state and some are very receptive. They want to make voting easier and they need political leverage to do that. So it might depend on the kind of state you're in. For example, are you in a state where all of these reforms have to be done at the legislative level? Or as the secretary of state in Connecticut was telling me, her real problem is that it's in the state constitution how voting happens in Connecticut. And as a result, she needs to get a state constitutional amendment through to ease some of the barriers to voting. That will require then a large vote by Connecticut citizens. It will probably require a ballot initiative. Ballot initiatives in the last few years have been highly successful in removing some of the barriers to voting. So getting involved at that level, I think, would be a very good idea.

I also want to make sure everybody understands that there are plenty of Republican secretaries of state and Republican legislators who want everybody to vote. And while it sounds very much like a partisan issue across the board, it's not always a partisan issue. The key, I think, is pitching it as a nonpartisan issue. We should all, Republicans and Democrats, and of course independents, should all want everyone to have free and equal opportunities to participate in elections.

Jenna Spinelle:

Well, Nancy, thank you for all of your work and thank you for joining us today to talk about it.

Nancy Thomas:

Thank you, Jenna. This was really interesting and I hope people will go forth and get involved. So thanks so much for including me.