‘They’re Ready to Vote’: Inside the Push to Turn Out NC’s College Students

A truck carrying an ad in Raleigh for NextGen, a national youth voter organization seeking to turn out college voters in North Carolina.

By Michael McElroy

October 16, 2020

Voting among young people surged in NC in the 2018 election. Organizers are hoping for an even bigger windfall in 2020. 

Lexi Crouse, 19, registered to vote three years ago when she got her driver’s license in Goldsboro. The process was automatic, she didn’t have to do a thing. Last year, she moved to Greenville for her first year at Eastern Carolina University, vaguely aware during the build toward the 2020 election that she would have to do something with her registration in order to vote in the primaries. 

“I kind of knew that the address was a big thing for voting,” Crouse said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “I knew that I needed to change it, but I wasn’t sure how to do that since I didn’t technically, I guess, register myself to begin with. I hadn’t really gone through any forms or that process before.”

As a first time voter in the swirling confusion of college life, Crouse is not alone.

Students often bring their ideals with them to campus, wearing them, if not on their sleeves, then within easy reach. This potential makes them seem like an ideal voting demographic. But their burgeoning passion and awareness of issues like social justice, climate change and economic inequality hide a less certain grasp on the voting process itself. Since they are often first-time voters and living in a temporary hometown, they face unique challenges in access, and rules that can seem confusing. 

That confusion, research shows, helps explain why, despite their passions and engagement on issues, college students tend to vote in far lower numbers than older people. 

Like Crouse, many students are already registered in their hometowns when they come to campus, or they are coming from another state with its own particular rules, or, in midterm votes, they may not even realize there is an election.  

Crouse got help negotiating the complexities from NextGen America, a progressive voting rights group that is one of several organizations focusing on increasing voting numbers on college campuses.

The group guided her through registration and engaged her in the political process. Giving her a way to focus her passion, she said, for women’s rights and LGBTQ issues. 

Groups like NextGen and You Can Vote say they have registered hundreds of thousands of students in North Carolina in 2016 alone, establishing noticeable presence on campuses, often in partnership with the colleges themselves. They hosted countless events and information sessions, and set themselves up with tables and clipboards in common areas, teaching students the basics, like you need to be registered in order to vote and that down ballot elections are often as important as the presidential race. Student by student they made sense out of the confusion.

Then came the pandemic.

‘Students are looking for leaders.’

After sending students home in March, many four-year colleges in North Carolina welcomed them back to campus in August with COVID protocols in place that, the colleges said, would allow for safe, in-person learning. At UNC-Chapel Hill, that lasted less than a week. Positive cases spiked, and Chapel Hill moved online only, closing dorms and sending students who’d just streamed into town streaming back out again. NC State and East Carolina University had similar experiences.

The moves off campus, which included many community colleges, threatened efforts to register the college demographic, the voting groups say.

“It’s been hard to reach students, especially over the summer because everyone is in a different place and there are not as many students on campus,” said Kate Fellman, the founder of the voting rights group You Can Vote.

But it was only temporary. And if nothing else, the pandemic, the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor killings and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, focused college students’ attention on the importance of voting for the right leaders more than any civics class could. 

“There’s been a lot of challenges this year with COVID, but students are just as engaged or more engaged than we’ve ever seen,” Fellman said.

“Just this year, we’ve reached at least 50,000 students with our messages and registered thousands of students.”

She continued: “With so much focus on the election and the pandemic we have had this community learning about how voting can address these big concerns. Students are looking for leaders, and it’s just becoming much clearer: The leaders that represent us have power over our daily lives, our public safety and our health.”

In 2016, 18-29 year-olds voted at a rate some 20 percentage points below the national average. In the 2018 midterms, however, the narrative shifted. Young voters came out in droves. That year, 40% of eligible students voted.

According to a recent Knight Foundation study, the increase was among “the most dramatic surges in voter turnout for the 2018 midterm election of any voter group, prompting high expectations for [college students] in 2020.”

The upward trend is clear in North Carolina too, Rachel Weber, NextGen’s press secretary, said. 

“Even though voter registration did take a dip at the beginning of April because of the pandemic,” Weber said, “we saw a significant rebound.”

More than 31,000 North Carolina voters ages 18-35 registered in July, she said, and more than 45,000 registered in August. In September, nearly 79,000 young North Carolinians registered to vote.

In 2019, there were just under 240,000 students in the state university system alone, and Gen Z voters (born before 1996), the Pew Research Center says, will account for 1 of 10 eligible voters in the 2020.

Still, challenges remain.

You Can Vote formed in 2013, Fellman said, in response to the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder to invalidate large parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. 

The 5-4 ruling, in which the majority argued that the law was no longer needed because entrenched racism was no longer a barrier to voting, gave states the room to enact voter ID laws, restrictions on Early Voting, and partisan gerrymandering, initiatives widely seen as directed at voters of color. 

While federal judges have at least temporarily blocked NC’s voter ID law and struck down its gerrymandered maps, the back and forth can cast confusion over the rules, a kind of doubt about the process that is its own form of voter suppression, Fellman said. 

“Word often goes out that IDs are a requirement and it’s all over the news, but when things get rolled back or there is a court injunction, those are not as newsworthy and the fix is not as well covered as the error. The error sticks.

Myth: I don’t have a photo ID, I can’t vote. Yes, you can.

Myth: My driver’s license isn’t updated, I can’t vote. Yes, you can

Myth: I haven’t received my ID in the mail, I can’t vote. Yes, you can.

“There’s so much confusion over whether the students are even eligible to vote in NC,” Fellman said, and it “leaves them to not even bother to vote in the first place.”

So getting that first vote exactly right is crucial to turning a first-time voter into a lifetime voter, Fellman said. 

“You need to create that habit of voting.” 

Early voting is often the best choice for college students to establish that habit, Fellman said.

‘They’re ready to vote.’

The early voting window, which started on Thursday and runs through Oct. 31, allows residents to register at the same time they vote. The extra time also gives young voters a chance to fix any registration errors.

Most college campuses, including Duke, UNC, Durham Tech, North Carolina Central, and ECU have early voting sites nearby and the hours have been extended, making the option all the more convenient. (Find your sites here.)

“We should be making voting easier, especially for voters new to the process,” Fellman said.

“These are our future leaders. We need them to get ahold of the process and participate every single time so we can have their help in solving some of these big challenges.”

Her conversations with students across the state, she said, leave her confident that this year college students will make up for any lost time in past elections. 

“Students are engaged and they’re hungry for information,” she said. “They’re ready to vote.”

And like Crouse, they’re eager to help.

She went from seeking guidance from NextGen to giving it to others, first volunteering and then joining NextGen’s fellows program. 

“If not for folks like Lexi and our other fellows, we would have a much harder time reaching college students,” Weber said. 

During the primaries in March, Crouse said, her first contact from NextGen accompanied her to the polls, for support. 

“It was a little nerve-wracking,” she said, but “I felt empowered.”

When it was finally her turn, she was handed her ballot and entered the booth alone. 

Then, for the first time, Lexi Crouse cast her vote.


  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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