Fewer Colorado College students vote in general elections than the national liberal arts college average. While there was a 5 percent increase in CC voter turnout from the 2012 to 2016 general elections, there was a 52.7 percent decrease in absentee votes, meaning that many more CC voters are casting their ballots in Colorado Springs rather than in their hometowns.
In 2016, CC Votes partnered with New Era Colorado and registered over 700 voters leading up to the general election. The percentage of students voting by mail-in ballot before Election Day also jumped from 5.4 percent to 63.2 percent from 2012 to 2016. This may have been a result of efforts by CC Votes to collect and return ballots for students, which qualify the ballots as “mail-in” based on the data collection agency. Mail-in ballots prove a popular option as 94 percent of ballots were mailed in before Election Day in El Paso County for the 2016 general elections.
According to a Tufts University study from the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement, student voting at CC has shifted from majority absentee voting to voting in Colorado Springs. In the 2012 general elections, 70 percent of CC students who voted in the election voted outside of El Paso County through absentee ballots. In the 2016 general election, only 17.2 percent of students voted absentee and 71.8 percent voted in Colorado Springs. The increased number of students registered to vote in Colorado Springs has increased the potential voting power CC students hold going into the local election on Nov. 7, despite historically low voter turnout rates.
To contextualize CC voter turnout, in the 2016 general election, 39.7 percent of eligible voters (U.S. citizens at least 18 years old) voted at CC. This was an increase from the approximate 35 percent turn-out in the 2012 general election. The average rate in liberal arts colleges is 50.4 percent.
CC Democrats Co-Chair Steven Ortega ’18 explained some of the discrepancy between CC voter turnout and comparable institutions. “I think some of it is a contrast with our surrounding area,” Ortega said. “There’s an assumption that Colorado Springs is relatively conservative, which—at the macro level, especially at the El Paso County or the City 5, our congressional district level—is exactly true. There’s a lot of data that suggests that in safe districts, turn-out is lower because Democrats or more left-leaning populations in this district— which I think would apply to CC—don’t really see it worth their time to vote in a lot of elections because they know they’ll be swamped.”
“I think that makes sense for a midterm,” Ortega continued. “It does not really make sense for presidential elections because you’re voting within the state of Colorado, which is a swing state. Municipal elections it’s much more of a toss-up. I think most people just don’t really know what the issues are.”
One facet of increasing voter turn-out is changing the culture around civic engagement at CC. “CC doesn’t emphasize civic engagement as much as some similar schools do,” Ortega said. “I think the idea of organizing and being politically involved is more salient at other schools. We, as a campus, only started registering students to vote two years ago. I don’t think CC communicates civic engagement as a value of our campus very well.”
If voters do not feel affected by the results, they vote in lower numbers. “Sometimes our CCSGA election voter turn-out is higher than our general election turn-out [including 2016],” said Ortega. “It’s more immediate to students; you might have friends who are running.” With county, municipality, and school district issues all appearing on the November 2017 ballot, the issues really do make a difference in the local community.
Despite all of the encouragements to vote, when trying to increase voter turnout, anything short of fines for failure to vote tend to make only minimal differences. The results at CC do not diverge from that trend.
Ortega continued as to how to increase voter turnout, “It takes a long time to build a new culture. In the intervention you’re talking about 1 to 4 percentage points.” With a 5 percent increase in voter turn-out between the 2012 and 2016 general elections, Ortega understands “that 5 percent is 30 students, so you can do all this work and spend all this time and you only changed the engagement of 30 students. And you can’t know they wouldn’t have voted anyway.”