As we rapidly approach the 2020 election, there is naturally discussion about how to boost voter engagement, particularly among college students.
Baylor University is making a push to raise voter registration rates and has partnered with a number of groups and campaigns to accomplish this, namely the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, the Big XII Voting Challenge, the League of Women Voters Waco Area, the Vote Everywhere program and the Andrew Goodman Foundation.
But voter registration is only part of the solution. According to data from the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement, roughly 81% of Baylor students were registered to vote in the 2018 midterm elections. However, only about 39% of registered students (31% of the student body overall) actually voted. Voting rates will surely be higher this year as students will have the opportunity to vote for president, but these numbers can still be better.
Low turnout among registered students is probably down to either an unwillingness to vote, or the inconvenience of voting. The first point isn’t something Baylor can really address, but the second absolutely is.
First: make the Ferrell Center a Vote Center. McLennan County calls its polling places “Vote Centers.” Any voter registered in McLennan County can cast their ballot at the Vote Center most convenient for them, rather than being required to use the one in their assigned precinct. The problem with this is there isn’t a very convenient Vote Center for students – especially students who may not have their own vehicle – to use.
According to Kathy Van Wolfe, elections administrator for McLennan County, the closest Vote Center to campus is the Waco Convention Center located downtown on Washington Avenue. The closest Vote Center on the Baylor side of Interstate 35 is the South Waco Library at 2737 S. 18th Street. Neither are within convenient walking distance from campus. Using the Ferrell Center as a Vote Center would provide a convenient location for Baylor students to cast their votes without needing to travel far off campus.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a change that could be made in time for November. Vote Centers for the upcoming election were finalized in August, and Van Wolfe said the primary reason why the Ferrell Center isn’t already a Vote Center is because it would need to be available for all elections. However, with some clever scheduling and cooperation with partners like the Big 12, surely Baylor could find a way to make it work in the future.
Second: give students the day off on Election Day. This should be a no-brainer if the university wants to boost voter engagement. A day off from class will make it easier for students who are registered in McLennan County to find the time to go to the polls.
A case study by Caitlyn Bradfield and Paul Johnson at BYU compared voter turnout in the US and France, which holds elections on a Saturday. The study found that making election day a holiday could recreate the same effect seen with France’s weekend elections, which average over 80% voter turnout compared to around 50% in the U.S.
Like using the Ferrell Center as a Vote Center, this probably isn’t something that could be done this year – especially not with the condensed schedule we’re already dealing with because of COVID-19. The academic calendar is already set, but waiting until the next election to discuss these ideas will only delay the process further.
These proposals, if implemented, will need to be planned far in advance. If Baylor wants more of its students to engage in our country’s political processes, the administration should take a serious look at these ideas now.