#StudentVote Story of Success

Learn about the #StudentVote movement directly from the leaders who built it.

The last six years have seen extraordinary gains in student voting and civic engagement, culminating with a historic 66% student voting rate in the 2020 elections. Achieved in the face of considerable obstacles, this was neither accidental nor inevitable. Thousands of people across the US have been building, growing, and iterating on student engagement strategies day in and day out since early 2016 (and in many cases long before then), creating an infrastructure and building a movement. 

This is the story of how they came together to form a network of local, state, and national leaders, connected through common purpose and shared values. Together, they tell the #StudentVote Story of Success.

The Students Learn Students Vote (SLSV) Coalition is the national hub and largest nonpartisan network in the United States dedicated to increasing college student student voter participation. Our Coalition consists of hundreds of campus, nonprofit, community, student, and philanthropic leaders, as well as public officials, who share a vision of a democracy that ensures every student has easy and equal access to participate in every election.

Writing a new story

Formed in 2016, the Students Learn Students Vote (SLSV) Coalition began at a time when students were not seen as dependable voters in US elections. The most recent federal elections, which took place in 2014, saw just a 19% student voting rate. “We have nowhere to go but up,” said Nancy Thomas, Director of Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy & Higher Education, at the time. In national media, it was seen as gospel that college students don’t vote

Changing this narrative required changing realities on the ground – which is exactly what the campus, nonprofit, student, philanthropic, and community leaders who form the SLSV Coalition have been working to do on college campuses throughout the US – in many cases since long before the Coalition’s founding. Now buoyed by a Coalition that amplifies and supports their efforts, they’ve helped students establish themselves as a voting powerhouse. 


Thriving in unprecedented times

The last four years have seen an explosion of student participation in US elections despite extraordinary obstacles. In 2018, 40% of student voters turned out for the US midterm elections – more than double the 19% who participated in the 2014 midterms. Then, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted virtually all aspects of our society. Campuses everywhere were shut down, forced to quickly transition to virtual environments with no idea how long the situation would last. Most educators and students were just trying to figure out how to make a virtual classroom setting conducive to learning, let alone create plans to help students participate in the fall elections later that year. 

Despite the enormous obstacles, student voters showed up, as campuses, with support from nonprofit Coalition partners, sought creative ways to reach students digitally in order to ensure they could register and turn out to vote. The results were stunning. The national student voting rate rose to a record-breaking 66% – a 14-percentage point increase over 2016, which doubled the general population’s 7-point increase in turnout. With 97% of the nearly 1,200 campuses participating in the 2020 National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) reporting an increased voting rate, the movement to grow the #StudentVote became both universal and prolific. Students, campus and local leaders, and nonprofit organizations in states and communities of all types, contributed to this incredible growth – with SLSV Coalition partners throughout the country leading and supporting through immeasurable obstacles.  

Leading through Collaboration

The SLSV Coalition’s approach to collaboration is at the heart of all its successes to date. By creating a network of diverse partners, providing spaces where they can come together to share knowledge, and facilitating collaboration that puts the voices, needs, and lived experiences of Coalition partners’ communities first, the Coalition helped leaders throughout the nonpartisan student vote movement build and access the capacity and resources needed to re-define their space over the course of an election cycle that presented unprecedented challenges. 

Key to this approach is centering and trusting local leaders – working with partners throughout the Coalition to understand their needs first-hand, with the knowledge that success means elevating, not erasing, their work. From Ask Every Student to Campus Takeover to the Coalition’s Committees, working groups and Advisory Board, every SLSV collaboration is grounded in the context of its partners.  

Broadening our reach

As the largest nonpartisan network in the United States dedicated to increasing college student voter participation, the SLSV Coalition’s reach expands into campuses and communities historically underrepresented in US elections, including community colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs). 

Through initiatives such as Campus Vote Project’s (CVP) Legacy Initiative, which was created to identify and address the barriers Black students face in going to the polls, and Ask Every Student, a national joint initiative that seeks to help campuses achieve full student voter registration and had an outsized impact on voter turnout on community college campuses in 2020, the Coalition has provided and seized upon unique opportunities to address intersectional issues faced by student voters. In 2020, the Legacy Initiative partnered with the NAACP Youth and College Division to host HBCU roundtables that yielded major themes and proposed solutions for all who engage with and support HBCU students. That same year, 30 community colleges participated in Ask Every Student, contributing to a 10-point jump in voting rates at these institutions compared to 2016.

Celebrating the vote

Part of what led to historic voter turnout in 2020 was a reframing of democratic participation from a bureaucratic hassle to a time for community and celebration. Colleges and universities are natural hubs for student engagement (and fun!) That’s why for the last five years, the SLSV Coalition has supported campuses in hosting events that celebrate voting and encourage college students to participate in the democratic process.

Whether it’s mobilizing for the Civic Holidays (including National Voter Registration Day, National Voter Education Week, Vote Early Day and Election Hero Day) through the Campus Takeover program, or through other events and mobilizations throughout the year, we help campuses make voting and democratic engagement fun. In 2020, more than 600 campuses celebrated the act of voting through Campus Takeover (a nationwide effort to mobilize students around elections during the Civic Holidays) and the Coalition is working to ensure even more celebrate in 2022. Our democracy deserves to be celebrated. 

Rising in Stature

Along with the rise in student voting rates has come a commensurate rise of student voters in the consciousness of the leaders and institutions whose decisions impact how students engage with democracy. In 2021, the White House issued an Executive Order on Promoting Access to Voting and consulted directly with SLSV Coalition leadership on how to execute the Order’s priorities for student voters. These conversations have continued into 2022 and are indicative of a broader range of leaders, including many on college campuses, who now recognize the urgency of incorporating nonpartisan voter engagement into the higher education experience, as well as the benefits communities stand to gain from those efforts. 

Strengthening Democractic Values

One key benefit of incorporating nonpartisan voter engagement into the higher education experience is that it builds democratic values among the next generation of our country’s leaders and voters. It’s no coincidence that 2020 election data shows that the most common way young voters heard about the election was not from digital outreach and social media, but from other young people. Nearly two-thirds of youth (ages 18-24) talked to friends about politics, and almost half tried to convince their peers to vote.

By helping campus leaders build nonpartisan voting coalitions, combat misinformation by communicating directly to students, foster dialogue across political divides through events and mobilizations, and empower new voters to make informed and confident choices, SLSV Coalition partners are helping create a lasting culture of civic engagement that continues to build on itself even after each class of student vote leaders moves on from a given campus. This focus on institutionalization will help ensure that campuses continue to strengthen democratic values for years to come.

Thank you to all of our partners who contributed to the success of the SLSV Coalition since 2016.

We would like to especially thank Manny Rin of the StudentPIRGs, Franecia Moore of Common Cause, Jenna Spinelle of Penn State University, and Zoe Williamson and Danny Fersh from the Students Learn Students Vote Coalition for building the Story of Success, and the following partners that we interviewed for this series:

Andres Cubillos, Florida State University

Aniya Whitfield, Winston-Salem State University

Briana Burton, University of Southern Mississippi

Clarissa Unger, Students Learn Students Vote Coalition

Dan Xie, StudentPIRGs

Daniela Mrabti, Alliance for Youth Organizing

Duy Trinh, Institute for Democracy and Higher Education

Izzy Milch, Forward Montana Foundation

Jen Domagal-Goldman, ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge

Jesse Littlewood, Common Cause

Johanna Hussain, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Katie Montgomery, Cuyahoga Community College

Kelley Elliot, Tennessee Campus Democracy Network

Lesley Graybeal, University of Central Arkansas

Michael Jackson Jr., Alabama A&M University

Mike Dean, Lead MN

Monica Clarke, Alabama A&M University

Nancy Thomas, Insitute for Democracy and Higher Education

Natalie Sobrinksi, Northampton Community College

Stanley Ebede, Northampton Community College

Niyah Norton, Bowie State University

Patty Robinson, College of the Canyons

Prabhat Gautam, Institute for Democracy and Higher Education

Sam Novey, SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, Michigan Department of State

Secretary of the Commonwealth Leigh Chapman, Pennsylvania Department of State 

Sophia Parker, Spelman College

Tamer Mokhtar, All Americans Vote

Vashti Hinton-Smith, Common Cause North Carolina