Princeton had record turnout in the 2020 election. Over three-quarters of eligible Princetonians voted, the highest rate of participation in recent memory and a seven-fold increase from its 2014 voter turnout. This is how Vote100, Princeton’s student-led civic engagement organization, harnessed the creativity of students, faculty, and administrators and the resources of the University to bring new life to democracy on campus.
On the evening of October 26th, 2021, a group of students met in the James Madison Room on the 3rd floor of Whig Hall. The event, an information session for students interested in joining Vote100, Princeton’s student-led civic engagement group, was opened with a question: “Who can guess what percentage of eligible Princeton students voted in 2014?”
The attendees, mostly members of the Class of 2025, shouted out answers that varied wildly.
Fifty! Fifty-five! Forty-Five! Forty-Two! One student, after explaining that he was guessing with “The Price is Right” rules, yelled out “Forty-one point nine!”
They had guessed too high. The correct answer was just 10.5%. 2014 was a midterms year, and far from the most exciting election in recent history; but still, only around 800 people out of a total student body of over 8,000 actually voted.
Vote100 was created in response to the 2014 election. The organization was designed to be a partnership between students and administrators, funded and supported by the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students, but run by the students themselves. Since its inception, Vote100 has worked to increase turnout among Princeton’s student body (and beyond). It relies on Tufts University’s National Survey of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) to correlate student enrollment data with voting records to provide high-quality data on student voting and to track its progress.
The clearest proof of Vote100’s impact came a few days after the first interest meeting, on November 1st. Gathered again in the James Madison Room, the meeting was opened the same way. “Who can guess,” a Vote100 Fellow asked, “what percentage of eligible Princeton students voted in 2020?”
The group, almost all of whom had been at the first meeting and had heard the disheartening 2014 statistic, began to guess again.
Thirty-eight. Sixty. Forty-one. Thirty. Another student, half joking, suggested ten.
But this time, they had guessed too low. Understandably, given Princeton’s performance in 2014 and the chaos surrounding Covid-19 and the 2020 election, they were not particularly optimistic about Princeton’s civic engagement. Ana Blanco ’23, another Vote100 Fellow, projected NSLVE’s 2020 report onto the screen. She scrolled down to reveal a number, in bright green against a gray background:
Fully three-quarters of eligible Princetonians cast ballots in the 2020 election, and the numbers on the screen only became more encouraging as Ana continued to scroll. Princeton’s turnout was up 24.9 points from the 2016 election. It had beaten the national turnout rate of 67% and the record-high 66% turnout of American college students. In 2016, Princetonians were less likely to vote than the nation as a whole; in 2020, that trend was decisively reversed.
Vote100’s influence was felt throughout the data. Historically, yield – the percentage of registered students who voted – has been one of the most stubborn voting metrics to raise, but Princeton’s rate in 2020 was an astonishing 86.2%. Vote100 tackled the problem of raising yield in part through a partnership with TurboVote, a tool that reminds users (regardless of where they live) of upcoming registration and election deadlines, and which even provides postage for mail-in ballots. The idea behind TurboVote was to smooth the path for students as they navigated busy academic schedules, a patchwork election system that varies by state and county, and the innumerable barriers that face people who decide to vote at the last minute.
Over the summer of 2020, 26 Vote100 Fellows undertook the laborious task of contacting each of the 5,328 undergraduates at Princeton individually. The Fellows reminded their peers to register and to vote. The campaign was intended to engage students on a personal level; to show them that people they had taken classes with, people they were in clubs with, people who they ate with, cared about voting and were available to answer any and all questions. Ana Blanco credited the personalized approach of Vote100, especially when it came to reaching out to first-years beginning their time at Princeton. “I think it was powerful that they had other Princeton students reach out and be like, ‘Welcome, here’s some information to make voting easier for you, reach out if you have any questions!’
“Beyond that,” she added, “in 2020 we were also trying to get the entire student body on TurboVote and I think the fact that we could kind of go through the list and be like, ‘Yeah that’s my friends, or that’s someone I had a class with and reach out to them with the information was pretty influential.”
A bright spot for Vote100’s more targeted efforts was the turnout among the Class of 2024, at the time in their first year of (virtual) college. The Vote100 fellows made a concerted push to make voting and civic engagement an integral part of the orientation process for newly minted Princeton students. A TurboVote registration page was added to the academic year sign-in process, which gave each and every incoming student the chance to register as they prepared to start classes. Vote100 also crafted a presentation and a video tailored to the Class of 2024 reminding them that “To Be a Princetonian is to Vote!” The Class of 2024 performed even better than its older peers, achieving 80% turnout.
Vote100 also helped bridge the gap in voting rates between STEM and humanities students. Between 2016 and 2020, Mathematics concentrators showed a stunning 52-point increase in voting (up from just a 25% voting rate); engineers increased by 39 points, achieving an even better rate than students in philosophy, history, and social sciences. Vote100 created messaging specifically for STEM students at Princeton, who until 2020 were significantly less likely to vote. Vote100 Fellows approached deans, professors, and department heads in STEM fields to encourage them to include mentions of voting in classes that otherwise would not touch on the subject. Fellows also addressed the misconception that the world of STEM can be far removed from the political process.
The success of Vote100’s messaging showed its biggest advantage – being student-run. Only students can truly understand and account for the pressure that students face as they try to become student voters. Vote100 owes its success to its ability to anticipate the difficult choices students make as they balance academic and extracurricular obligations with the responsibilities of citizenship and civic engagement. Vote100 proved that University resources and student ideas were a winning combination; students and administrators worked together to strengthen civic and political life on campus, and to lay the groundwork for the continuous process of increasing turnout and informed, active participation in democracy.
Vote100 and Princeton are not resting on their laurels. Today is an election day – but while the dozens of races happening across the country (including in New Jersey) have not attracted the media attention or engagement of a presidential race, they are no less important for the daily lives of Americans. Vote100 Fellows and their administrative support staff are hard at work reminding people to vote, showing them where ballot drop boxes are, arranging transportation to polling places, and encouraging Princetonians to build on the momentum they showed in 2020.
Vote100’s goal, as the name suggests, is 100% turnout among the student body. Time to get to work.