The stakes in Tuesday’s midterm voting will be nothing less than the nation’s political and policy direction for the next two years. With polling often inaccurate in the last election, no one can confidently predict what the results will be this time, despite any evident trend lines going in.
Despite that uncertainty, many people, including at Harvard, are focused on the important voting ahead. Here are three major electoral areas — turnout, security, and voter analysis — in which efforts to understand the race and encourage participation are steaming ahead.
Future belongs to the young
Young voters, especially college students, are among the least likely to turn out at the polls on Election Day, no matter the year or the party in power.
The Harvard Votes Challenge, a student-led initiative that launched last spring, hopes to shatter part of that reality by helping University students register to vote, request and submit absentee ballots, provide helpful information, and get them excited about civic engagement and exercising their rights.
“Millennials and post-millennials are going to be the largest voting bloc in this upcoming election, and that’s really exciting,” said challenge co-founder Teddy Landis ’20, who also serves as student chair of the Harvard Public Opinion Project, which produces the Institute of Politics’ semi-annual youth poll. “Young people don’t really get a voice in politics, and so to see that we’d have all this potential presented a new beginning in America, in my mind. But then I looked at [data] which showed that young people don’t really vote. It was really sad to me that we have this tremendous opportunity to shape what we want our country to be, but young people aren’t taking advantage of that.”
The group is nonpartisan and has no public registration goal across the University, but hopes simply to encourage classmates to see voting — and more broadly, civic participation — as important components of what it means to be Harvard students, said Landis.
The initiative got an adrenaline shot as the semester began when new President Larry Bacow made voting in November his “homework assignment” for first-year students during his convocation address, said Landis, who oversees the College effort. Challenge team members took full advantage, slipping a problem set under every first-year’s door the day after Bacow’s remarks, instructing the 18-year-olds how to register to vote or how to request absentee ballots from their hometowns.
There are team leaders in 11 Schools. Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) reached a self-imposed goal of registering 90 percent of eligible students through TurboVote last month, while the Graduate School of Education (GSE) had about 65 percent of eligible students register so far. In the College, 30 undergraduate teams have been holding events, knocking on doors, hosting sign-up tables, helping students request absentee ballots and get them mailed on time, and doing peer-to-peer outreach on why voting is important.
Kevin Ballen ’22 manages the first-year student drive and said he’s seen a lot of excitement among the students. The challenge hosted more than 40 study breaks since the semester began, posted information at most entryways to the Yard, and saturated social media. The challenge had 20 “dorm mobilizers” in first-year residence halls for one-on-one outreach and to help students navigate the logistics of registering and voting by absentee ballot, or to find out more about candidates and issues in their home states. In all, Ballen estimates the drive has contacted nearly 1,400 of the 1,600 first-years.
With no way to track if or how students vote, the group won’t know until after the election whether its efforts have been fruitful. To gauge voter participation, the organizers have urged students to fill out pledge-to-vote cards, either in person or online, and are in a contest with Yale to rack up the most pledge cards. Behavioral science research shows that people are more apt to follow through on something if they’ve committed to it in writing.
According to a National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement report, 57.8 percent of 22,604 eligible Harvard students voted in the 2016 presidential election. More than three-quarters of eligible students, 77.6 percent, registered in 2016.
If results from a new Harvard Institute of Politics (IOP) Youth Poll are accurate, turnout among Harvard students could reach a high. Forty percent of voters age 18‒29 say they will definitely vote in the midterm, according to the findings released Oct. 29. Though poll director John Della Volpe said the organizers don’t expect that many to turn out, past trends indicate that, even accounting for the usual gap of -7.5 points between those who say they will vote and those who actually do, the figure suggests young voters will turn out in significantly greater numbers than in many years past. The only midterms in which young voters turned out at a greater rate than their typical 18‒20 percent were in 1986 and 1994, he said.
That could be bad news and good news, he said. It could be bad news in that what’s driving young voters to the polls is the “fear and trauma” they’ve experienced in their short lives. The poll found that two-thirds of young people polled (76 percent Democrats, 34 percent Republicans) are more fearful than hopeful about the country’s future. But the good news, Della Volpe said, is that such a large number of new voters would offer the country an opportunity for a “once-in-a-generation attitudinal shift” about voting and civic engagement.