Making voter registration easier

Voter registration and turnout of University of South Carolina students is typical of college students nationally – but Carolina leaders are trying to improve the numbers by making it easier for students to register to vote.

During the last presidential election, in 2012, 74.3 percent of Carolina students were registered to vote, and 61.6 percent of those students voted, according to a National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement campus report from a study done by Tufts University on student voting rates. That means 45.7 percent of the Carolina student body voted in the presidential election. That number dropped to 17.8 percent in the 2014 midterm election. Undergraduate students, 41.9 percent of whom voted, were slightly less likely to vote in the 2012 election than graduate students, 49.2 percent of whom voted.

“The results are not surprising,” Todd Shaw, chair of the political science department, says about the report. “The students are following national trends, in terms of turnout.”

Nationally, in the 2012 presidential election, 46.9 percent of students on college campuses voted. Compared with public research institutions, Carolina also was similar, with 48.2 percent the voter turnout nationally among public research institutions.

There was a high level of mobilization around campus during the 2012 election, Shaw says, but he hasn’t noticed the same level this year.

“There’s a feeling of drop-off,” Shaw says. “Students are a little more critical of parties.”

Whoever wins this election, the margin of victory will show political parties whether they need to re-evaluate their positions, he says. Young people bring new eyes to politics, Shaw says. While he isn’t feeling the same energy as in 2012, he hopes students will be aware and engaged this year.

“My hope is that we can inspire students to be critical, not cynical, about what’s happening in the American political system,” Shaw says.

The university’s Leadership and Service Center is trying to get more students involved in the process. The center has established a partnership with TurboVote, an online voter registration tool. At, students can easily and quickly register to vote online with basic personal information. For students from states that don’t allow online registration, they can request an application that will come with a pre-stamped return envelope.

It’s a way to “make sure students have every means available” to register, says Ryan Patterson, a leadership coach who has been key in Carolina’s TurboVote implementation. “The more that we can get students involved, the better.”

It’s this involvement and engagement on which the university has its focus.

“It’s easy for everyone to agree it’s important to vote,” says Kelly Wuest, director of the Leadership and Service Center. “But it’s not actually easy to vote.”

Many students think their voice won’t be heard or their vote doesn’t matter, says Wuest, adding that students underestimate their power to influence the world.

“Sometimes it really is as simple as voting,” Wuest says.

The Leadership and Service Center has a number of programs in place to spark conversations especially relevant in an election year. Between a forum series and the Community Pathfinders series that bring in speakers about civic engagement, there is no shortage of ways to be involved.

“Students’ votes matter, and they matter greatly,” Patterson says. “Sometimes they don’t realize the strength of their voices when combined.”

In this election season, Wuest says, there is more of a feeling of wanting to be informed and part of the process.

“I hope students do care, even if it’s only a little bit,” Wuest says. “Read one thing. Watch one debate. Vote third party, if you’re so inclined. Write somebody in. Just vote.”

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