Mid-Terms Saw Record Young Voters; So What’s New for Higher Ed?

By Steve Chaplin

The mid-term elections are over. Young voters from 18–29 came out in near record numbers, and the political landscape for campus communities continued to vary from state-to-state. In New York, a new law now mandates polling places on any campus with 300 or more registered students, while in Texas only half of its 36 public universities had any form of early voting.

During the last presidential election, nine out of 10 campuses in the United States had no early voting, and 74% had no on-campus, in-person voting options at all. That represents 6.6 million college students with no voting option on their campus—nearly the 7 million vote spread between the candidates in 2020.

“The ultimate inspiring thing for me is that students are a wildly untapped population in terms of people getting their voices heard—a huge group who, in my experience, is not apathetic but frustrated with how complicated it typically is to vote,” Cornell University student Patrick Mehler told the Division of Campus and Student Life. Mehler is a founding member of Cornell Votes, a group that advocated for the campus polling place legislation in New York, along with another portion of the law that prohibits the division of college campuses into multiple voting districts.

The percentage of young people voting is still low—only 27% of those eligible voted in 2022—but that remained the second-highest midterm turnout for the group in nearly 30 years, surpassed only by young voter turnout in the 2018 midterms. And college students vote more than peers not in college, as noted in 2018 when 40% voted, up from 19% in the 2014 midterms.

This year it was abortion and the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court that drove voters from 18 to 29 to the polls, according to Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. Other voters over age 29 cited inflation as the top issue; but 44% of younger voters cited abortion, compared to 21% naming inflation. The Tufts’ research also noted that young voter turnout was likely a record, reaching 31% in battleground states like Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Just a month before the midterms, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, after learning of cases where women were being denied access to necessary prescriptions and contraception on college campuses, said the Supreme Court ruling had “sown fear, confusion, and distrust on our college campuses. I think about the 1-in-4 women who experience sexual assault in college, and what this means for their safety and well-being. I think about the community college student I met earlier this month, who was unable to enroll until she escaped a violent abuser. Access to reproductive health care is vital to student success in college and beyond.”

Kent State University first-year student Lesa Cruz told her campus news service that the Supreme Court ruling led her to register to vote. “I don’t like them putting laws on women’s bodies. It’s one of the main reasons I got registered to vote,” she said. “I think these restrictions have to do with religion. I think there should be a separation of church and state.” At the same time, other students there expressed disappointment after learning they couldn’t vote due to Ohio’s requirement that registration to vote occur before an October 11 deadline. 

At the University of Pennsylvania, more than 2,200 students voted on-campus, with more than two-thirds of those votes cast inside the nation’s first student union, Houston Hall, which served as one of two campus polling sites. A record 69% of Penn State students voted in the 2020 presidential election, and campus administrators said this year’s midterm election turnout resembled that.

In Washington, D.C., 394 campuses were recognized for increasing student voter registration, education, and turnout during the recent midterm. The non-partisan student voter advocacy group ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge said the campuses came from 44 states and the District of Columbia and included 94 minority-serving institutions, seven HBCUs, 63 Hispanic-serving institutions, and 68 community colleges.

“The research is clear: colleges and universities that make intentional efforts to increase nonpartisan democratic engagement have higher campus voter registration and voter turnout rates. Despite ongoing obstacles, these campuses have remained dedicated in their commitment to ensuring that their students are informed and confident voters,” said Jennifer Domagal-Goldman, executive director of ALL IN.

LGBTQ+ legislation across the United States may have led to a surge in voting by those who identify as LGBTQ+; new research has shown this population to be the fastest growing group of voters in the United States. LGBTQ+ voters could represent one-fifth of all voters by 2040, according to new research. Over 1,000 queer candidates ran for office in the midterms, and a record 400 LGBTQ+ candidates won their mid-term races.

Campuses can expect to hear more about Title IX and the U.S. Education Department’s proposal to protect sexual orientation and gender identity, extending legal protections to transgender students through interpretations of this federal gender-equity law and how it applies to campus sexual harassment and sex discrimination. With Democrats controlling the U.S. Senate the next two years, it’s also expected that Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont will chair the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, providing him the chance at voicing his preferences for free college and for vast increases in federal spending for higher education.

Issues like LGBTQ+ rights, reproductive rights, climate change, and gun violence drove Gen Z voters to the polls, according to voter engagement activists, effectively watering down the effects of more conservative voters in the 65 and older category. In Florida, 25-year-old Maxwell Frost became the first Gen Zer to be elected to U.S. Congress

At the state level, there were several voter initiatives that could provide new opportunities for students in higher education and for college campuses: 

  • In Arizona, Proposition 308 will allow noncitizen students graduating from an Arizona high school to receive in-state tuition at any university under the jurisdiction of the Arizona Board of Regents or at community colleges. 
  • California will increase arts and music funding through Proposition 28, boosting by one-half of 1% of the state’s mandatory education spending, or an estimated $1 billion annually.
  • Massachusetts voters approved “Question 1,” which will provide additional funds for public education and public colleges and universities with a 4% increase to taxable income in excess of $1 million.
  • New Mexico voters approved a new bond authorization not to exceed $215 million for higher education, special schools, and tribal schools’ capital improvements and acquisitions. The measure establishes a general property tax imposition and levy to pay for the principal, interest and expenses of the bond.
  • Portland Community College will benefit from a $450 million bond measure to modernize buildings and update technology, including for the purpose of providing more hybrid learning options.

Responding to the midterm results in The Hill, Sara Guillermo, CEO of the young women’s political action group IGNITE, said a projected rise in a Democratic popular vote margins is the underlying racial and education composition of the electorate. That will continue to change with a decline in the share of eligible voters who are white, noncollege educated and an increase in the share of eligible voters who are non-white and white college graduates through the 2020s and into the 2030s.

“If there’s one takeaway from this election, it’s that candidates and campaigns that want to win need to speak to the issues young voters are passionate about, from student debt to reproductive justice, to mental health and more,” she wrote


  • Steve Chaplin

    Steve Chaplin is managing editor of ACUI’s The Bulletin and manager of the ACUI College Union and Student Activities (CUSA) Evaluation Program. A former newspaper writer, editor, and manager, he has volunteered as a student mentor as a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and received awards for his writing and reporting from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Kentucky Education Association, and the Kentucky Press Association.