Universities in Massachusetts strive for higher voter turnout, more student engagement

Statue of John Harvard on the Harvard University campus.

By Hannah Green
BU News Service

BOSTON — For the last four months, Daniela Sánchez has been working toward a single goal: Increase civic engagement at Tufts University in Somerville.

Sánchez, 23, is a Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life student outreach coordinator. She graduated from Tufts in 2020 with a double major in Latin American Studies and Spanish.

Now, she is the principal advisor for JumboVote, the nonpartisan student organization which promotes civic engagement and student voter turnout.

“This year has presented a lot of challenges,” Sánchez said. “But I think it helped JumboVote to be more creative, and creativity draws greater attention.”

With students attending classes in-person and remotely across the U.S., Sánchez said JumboVotes had to reach students in new ways.

Sánchez said each incoming first-year was mailed a packet with state-by-state voting information. All returning students received a postcard reminder to register or vote early.

JumboVotes also brought civic engagement to the classroom and dorm rooms.

Professors were given slides containing QR codes that directed students toward voter registration sites. Democracy representatives in dorm buildings became go-to resources for students to ask about mail-in voting and polling locations. 

“Because we couldn’t be in person, we were everywhere else,” Sánchez said.

In 2016, Tufts’ student body turnout rate was 63%. Sánchez said this year’s goal was 80%. 

Even before Election Day, a study by Tufts’ Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement found that nearly 10 million people aged 18-29 cast their ballot. A poll by CNN showed a 21% increase in the number of registered voters ages 18 to 34 who were very enthusiastic about voting in 2020 compared to 2016. 

Some states are already seeing an increase in voter turnout, including Texas, which emerged this election as an unexpected battleground state. CIRCLE found a 610% increase in Texas’ youth voter turnout. The study included both mail-in and early voting for voters under thirty as of eleven days before election day.

As of Tuesday morning, nearly 50% of Massachusetts voters had already cast their ballots. The office of Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin has not yet released data on the commonwealth’s youth voter turnout.

Civic engagement organizations across Boston college campuses are hoping their efforts boost these numbers.

“I feel like college students feel this is a very chaotic time, and [voting] is one way they can voice their opinions,” said Hannah Nivar, 19, a second-year student at Northeastern University. 

Nivar, who is studying international relations and political science, leads communications for Northeastern Votes, the university’s civic engagement organization. Nivar said Northeastern Votes reached students online and in-person through voter registration events.

For out-of-state students, Nivar said Northeastern Votes provided envelopes and stamps to request mail-in ballots.

And for the first time, Northeastern’s Matthews Arena will be a polling place for on-campus students and nearby Mission Hill or Roxbury residents. 

Across the Charles River, Harvard has set their own ambitious goal: 100% voter turnout among the university’s registered students, staff, and faculty. 

Alexander Park, 20, leads training and events for the Harvard Votes Challenge. Since 2018, the organization has been building a culture of civic engagement on campus.

In addition to virtual events, Park said that organizing fellows tracked down individual students to increase voter registration and participation.

“The reception from students, the administration, and faculty has been overwhelmingly positive,” Park said. “I’m very hopeful.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated Daniela Sánchez graduated in 2019. She graduated in 2020.

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