Report: Trinity Student Voting with NESCAC Comparison, 2016 and 2018

Trinity College and several of our peer institutions recently published news stories on student voter participation at their individual campuses, such as this Trinity College News story and the November 19th issue of the Trinity Tripod. Data is compiled by the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE), based at the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University. Last week, Trinity College received a “silver seal” from the All In Campus Democracy Challenge for achieving a student enrollment and voting rate between 30% and 39%.

Looking ahead to the 2020 election, Trinity and other schools in the New England Small College Athletic Conference are participating in NESCAC Votes, a friendly competition that also included an October Summit for member campuses to share strategies to increase student voting. At Trinity, our NESCAC Votes effort is co-led by Joe Barber (Director of Community Service and Civic Engagement), Carlos Espinosa (Director of the Office of Community Relations), and Jason Rojas (Chief of Staff, Assistant Vice President for External Affairs).

As Trinity enters the NESCAC Votes competition, it’s important to place recent student voting data in a comparative context, since this information is not readily available in news stories produced by individual campuses. While searching for voting data on other NESCAC schools, I discovered that a public subfolder inside the All In Campus website contained NSLVE reports for participating NESCAC schools. I compiled their estimated voting rates of eligible students for two recent elections: the 2016 presidential race and the 2018 midterms. See details in the links to individual campus reports shown below.

Currently, Trinity is behind all of the NESCAC peer institutions for which NSLVE reports are available. Only 43 percent of eligible Trinity students voted in the 2016 presidential election (compared to between 48 and 63 percent for other NESCAC schools). The 2018 midterm voting rates displayed a similar pattern but were lower overall relative to the presidential elections.

2016 Presidential Elections, Voting Rate of Eligible Students
63%     Tufts University 2016 report (MA)
58%     Hamilton College 2016 report (NY)
58%     Middlebury College 2016 report (VT)
57%     Wesleyan University 2016 report (CT)
56%     Connecticut College 2016 report (CT)
53%     Amherst College 2016 report (MA)
53%     Bowdoin College 2016 report (ME)
48%     Colby College 2016 report (ME)
43%     Trinity College 2016 report (CT)
NA       Bates College 2016 – no report (ME)
NA       Williams College 2016 – no report (MA)
Source: See NSLVE reports in the links above.

2018 Midterm Elections, Voting Rate of Eligible Students
51%     Middlebury College 2018 report (VT)
47%     Wesleyan University 2018 report (CT)
45%     Tufts University 2018 draft report (MA)
42%     Amherst College 2018 report (MA)l
41%     Connecticut College 2018 report (CT)
40%     Bowdoin College 2018 report (ME)
40%     Hamilton College 2018 report (NY)
38%     Colby College 2018 report (ME)
37%     Bates College 2018 report (ME)
31%     Trinity College 2018 report (CT)
NA       Williams College 2018 – no report (MA)
Source: See NSLVE reports in the links above

Also, NSLVE data reports differences in student voting rates over time. For presidential elections from 2012 to 2016, the average voting rate for participating NESCAC schools increased 10 percentage points, while Trinity’s rate increased only 5 points. For midterm elections from 2014 to 2018, the average NESCAC voting rate increased 27 points, while Trinity’s rate increased only 18 points.

As always, interpret voting data cautiously. First, NSLVE blends their estimates of in-person voting and absentee ballot voting, and the quality of these data may vary from state to state. Second, voter registration laws and procedures differ by location. On one hand, some states allow same-day voter registration (such as Connecticut), and some municipalities place voting sites closer to college campuses, which both increase outcomes. On the other hand, recent news stories have reported barriers faced by college student voters, such as this Inside Higher Education 2019 story about Sacred Heart University students who were discouraged from voting in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and this Washington Post 2019 story about voter suppression at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Third, voter turnout is usually higher in localities and states with highly-contested elections, which has not consistently been the case in the Democratic stronghold of Hartford, Connecticut. For more direct comparisons, it may be wiser to measure Trinity’s student voting rate to similar campuses in Connecticut, such as Connecticut College and Wesleyan University.

Together, we have more work to do to improve Trinity student voter engagement in the years to come. As we participate in the NESCAC Votes 2020 challenge, this baseline data reveals that each campus begins the race at different starting points. A fairer (and more interesting) competition would compare rates of growth: how much will each campus improve its 2020 eligible voting rate over its prior rate in 2016? To learn more about how different NESCAC campus interpret their student voter data, and are taking steps to increase registration and turnout for the 2020 election, see this Amherst student newspaper article and this Wesleyan civic engagement center post.

The mission of the Center for Hartford Engagement and Research (CHER) is to strengthen educational partnerships between Trinity College and Hartford’s diverse communities, and to evaluate campus-city relationships.