Election 2016 put University of Florida Political Science Professor Daniel Smith on nearly nonstop review of registration and trends along party lines and ballots cast in the hours leading up to polls closing throughout the nation. A prolific blogger and analyst on all things Florida balloting, he gained headlines for his take on early voting trends, and potential suppression efforts made in the state over the last two election cycles.
On his blog earlier this week, a cryptic message:
“The Race to 270 may well come down to Florida and the votes of the voters who didn’t go to the polls four years ago, or who became newly registered. With turnout of new voters so robust, it’s hard to say there’s an enthusiasm gap in Florida.”
With more than 6 million residents turned out for early voting, shattering state records and accounting for nearly 50% of the registered electorate, Smith is among the thousands of college faculty and students nationwide impacting opinions and actions of voters and lawmakers in the days and hours leading up to the final showdown, which ended in a historic win for Republican nominee Donald Trump over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
Schools in the critical swing states of Florida and North Carolina were in focus throughout the election cycle, and while both were called for Trump in Wednesday's early hours, campus mobilization efforts on early voting engagement, largely led by students, shaped the election's dramatic outcome.
Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach and Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens were among the key stops for Clinton and campaign surrogates over the last two weeks, a notion that administrators say honored students’ passion for building campus and community awareness for the election.
“The students understand the history of the university, and the history of people in America and that our strongest voice is our vote,” said Jason E. Glenn, vice-president of student affairs at Bethune-Cookman. “Students have been thinking about how this election will impact financial aid, opportunities that can be given or taken away in the future, and we tried to get them to think even beyond that and to consider impacting the world. We told them, ‘we just want you to vote, because someday, you won’t always be a student.’”
Glenn said that social media played a major role in helping to cultivate student participation for a campus-wide ‘March to the Polls’ event held last week. Accompanied by acclaimed civil rights activist Congressman John Lewis, more than 800 students engaged each other and citizens from the surrounding community to add to the historic early voting numbers.
These events, and late-stage voter registration organized by campus groups like the University of Miami Get Out the Vote in the final weeks of October, helped the state to make historic gains among groups divided by age, race and ethnicity. According to Smith, more than 36% of all voters who registered between Oct. 12 and Oct. 18 were in the 18-29 demographic, accounting for more than 32,400 registrations.
In North Carolina, similar late-stage pushes for early voting aided in making the state a battleground territory for Democrats and Republicans. At Duke University, student organizers relied heavily on social media campaigns and coverage from news outlets to help share and drive the urgency for participation.
“We reached out to individuals through social media, sent emails through administration and we made sure that students understood the need,” says Lisa Guraya, a junior public policy and global health major from Birmingham, AL who was among the leaders of the Duke Voting Coalition, a group comprised of members from a variety of campus student organizations, fraternities and sororities who worked to encourage voter registration and early voting throughout the fall semester.
Guraya cites coverage of Duke’s low turnout at its on-campus early voting site on the popular analytics website, FiveThirtyEight.com, as a key factor in boosting total voting from 1,200 to nearly 3,000 students voters between the ages of 18-22.
“There was this brief time during early voting when students hadn’t used the location, and then on FiveThirtyEight.com, North Carolina went red for a couple of days, which created a sense of urgency for many students,” she says. “They didn’t know the state was as pertinent as it was. Posts about the article were shared campus wide, and it really helped to increase turnout.”
The activity is consistent with a 2011 study done by Sam Houston State University researchers Stacy G. Ulbig and Tamara Waggener, which suggests that students registered to vote on an on-campus location voted at a higher rate the peers who did not register on campus.
For many campus leaders, the community outreach was a signal of the changing demographics in many communities throughout the south, which now increasingly favor millennial influence.
“Millennials have surpassed Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest living generation, our opportunity to engage students in the democratic process, and recognition of the potential of the Millennial voting bloc is an imperative,” says Miles College President George French.
In Raleigh, Shaw University students led a community ‘Stroll to the Polls’ to encourage neighboring citizens to join students, faculty and staff in voting.
“I’ve watched student engagement evolve over the course of the 2016 presidential race,” says Shaw President Tashni Dubroy. “There have been fluctuations in their excitement as the candidates they supported dropped out of the race. However, as early voting closed in North Carolina and election day drew closer, their engagement surged and what we are seeing now is unmatched millennial momentum.”