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Sonoma State University students have some of the highest voting rates in the nation. What's their secret?

A recent study shows that SSU students had a higher than average voter turnout in 2020 compared to other institutions across the country.|

College and university students across the nation voted in record-breaking numbers in the 2020 election, and students at Sonoma State University were among those leading the way.

A recent study conducted by the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University shows that SSU students had a higher-than-average voter turnout compared to other institutions across the country.

According to the report, the average voting rate at public institutions was 65% in 2020. At SSU, however, students surpassed the national average, with 88% of registered students casting ballots — a considerable increase from 57% in the 2018 election. SSU’s voting rate among eligible voters also increased from 43% in 2018 to 78% in 2020, as did voter registration rates.

“We know from research that when young people vote, they vote for the rest of their lives, so establishing habits as a voter when folks are young is so key for a functioning healthy democracy. Democracy doesn't work without participation,” said Merith Weisman, SSU’s director of community engagement and strategic initiatives.

Sonoma County as a whole had the highest voter turnout in the state in 2020, with 90.49% of registered voters casting ballots.

“We see better engagement, higher registration rates, more voting activity, and since we know voting is habit, it will be interesting to see what happens this midterm,” said David McCuan , chair of the university’s political science department.

The Tufts report also shows that voting rates at SSU increased across all demographics, regardless of age, race and ethnicity.

The biggest increase in voting rates at SSU was seen among students aged 18 to 21. Their voting rate went from 9% in 2014 to 76% in 2020. The second biggest increase was seen in students aged 22 to 24, with their voting rate increasing from 16% in 2014, to 73% in 2020.

History majors had the highest average voting rate, followed by public administration and social service students, and visual and performing arts students, according to the report.

“Don’t ever let anybody tell you that young people are apathetic, it’s just not true. Sometimes the process to get involved can be daunting, but that's not the same thing,” Weisman said.

She and her team promote voting on campus and worked with the county to get a ballot box installed in 2020.

She credits the increase in student voters to the relatively new ballot box and the state of California’s decision to remove the requirement for postage stamps on ballots in 2018.

“I think the ballot box made voting really easy on campus. Students didn’t need a stamp, didn't need to go anywhere, it didn't matter if they were from out of the county, they could just stick it in the box,” she said.

Additionally, 2020 was the first year SSU provided in-person voting on campus.

Weisman and McCuan both said the university promotes voting from beyond the classroom, engaging with students through social media.

“There’s engagement in the classroom and outside the classroom,” McCuan said. “It’s an all-campus effort.”

Students are taking matters into their own hands, as well, encouraging each other to get involved through peer education.

Associated Students, a group of student advocates providing programs and services on SSU’s campus, helps get students registered to vote each election. The political science department also hosts forums where students provide information about what’s on the ballot.

“We can see that younger people are voting at higher rates when we make it easier for them to vote. Ease of access equals higher voting rates,” McCuan said.

To read the study, visit bit.ly/3gLZXcj.

Kylie Lawrence can be reached at kylie.lawrence@pressdemocrat.com.

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