Big Ten Voting Challenge helped increase student turnout, will continue in 2020

November 12, 2019
Written By:
Dana Elger

Students in voting booths.

ANN ARBOR—College students across the 14 member institutions of the Big Ten Conference voted in record numbers during the 2018 midterm elections, following a challenge put forth by the presidents of their institutions.

Launched in 2017, the Big Ten Voting Challenge is a nonpartisan initiative created to spur civic engagement and encourage more students across the Big Ten to head to the polls on Election Day.

An estimated 7.5 million students across the country voted in the 2018 midterms, according to data from the National Study of Learning, Voting and Student Engagement at Tufts University.

The average student voting rate across the Big Ten Conference spiked to 43%, surpassing the national average student voting rate of 40% and more than double the national student voting rate of 19% in 2014.

As a result of the increased voter turnout, the 14 presidents across the Big Ten Conference have agreed to continue the challenge for the 2020 presidential election.

“This is an incredible example of the power of our students to increase student representation at the polls and use their voice to help shape our collective future. Voting in elections gives our students a voice in the democratic process and in the decisions that affect local, state, and national issues,” according to a letter signed by all Big Ten university presidents and chancellors.

Led by the University of Michigan’s Ginsberg Center, the challenge awards two campuses for their student voting efforts: greatest student voter turnout and most improved turnout between elections. The inaugural challenge focused on the 2018 midterm election in comparison to the 2014 midterms.

The University of Minnesota led the conference with the greatest overall turnout of student voters at 59%, up 29 percentage points from nearly 30% in 2014.

“Our administration-student partnership brought in a new attitude to student voter registration efforts,” said Mike Miller, legislative advocacy coordinator at the University of Minnesota Government and Community Relations.

“Student leaders in the Minnesota Student Association worked incredibly hard to make sure as many people as possible registered. Peer-to-peer registration efforts were critical to our success.”

Student voting efforts at the University of Minnesota in 2018 included:

  • Easy online voter registration that allowed students to register and request absentee ballots on any device and from any location. This was paired with an on-campus early voting location to turn Election Day into “Election Season.”
  • Strong collaboration with the student government body, as well as university departments, student groups and various student governance organizations.
  • Creation of a robust, promotional campaign, “Be a Voter,” which catered to reach the specific audience on the Twin Cities campus.

Rutgers University achieved the most improved student voter turnout between 2014 and 2018 with a 31 percentage point increase to 43% in 2018, up from 12% in 2014.

“This remarkable outcome can be attributed to the collaborative work of a hard-working and dedicated civic engagement coalition of campus administrators, faculty and students, and the commitment of the university to create a campus culture supportive of civic learning and engagement,” said Elizabeth Matto, associate research professor and director of the Center for Youth Political Participation at Rutgers.

Student voting efforts at Rutgers in 2018 included:

  • Creation of the Rutgers University Civic Engagement Coalition to coordinate efforts between the Eagleton Institute of Politics’ Center for Youth Political Participation, the Division of Student Affairs, NJPIRG Students and other campus groups.
  • Leveraging the existing university initiative, “RU Voting,” for encouraging and supporting student voting and registration, and engaging students to play an active role.
  • Organizing a campuswide civic engagement summit, a civic action plan and calendar, and numerous voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts, including preelection day parties and “Parties at the Polls” on Election Day.

The winners were presented trophies by the Ginsberg Center at the “ALL IN Challenge Awards Ceremony,” today in Washington, D.C., which honors outstanding contributions to improving college democratic engagement.

At the University of Michigan, voter turnout among students for midterm elections tripled in 2018 to 41%, up from 14% in 2014.

Student voting efforts at Michigan in 2018 included:

  • A campuswide collaboration among the Ginsberg Center, Turn Up Turnout, Central Student Government, all 19 schools and colleges, athletics and many other student organizations and units across campus to promote student voter engagement.
  • Registering incoming freshman and transfer students during orientation sessions via a partnership with the Office of New Student Programs.
  • Organizing a Voter Registration Week in the final week of September to coincide with National Voter Registration Day.

U-M created the Big Ten Voting Challenge Presidential Internship using the $10,000 pledged by President Mark Schlissel, and offered the first internship in summer 2019 working within Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office in Lansing. An additional internship will be offered in summer 2020.

For the 2020 challenge, the presidents across the Big Ten Conference have again each pledged $10,000 to be used on their respective campuses to promote student public engagement.

After the 2020 election, trophies will go to two universities—the one with the highest eligible voter turnout and the one with the most improved turnout compared to 2016.


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