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Barriers to Voting as a Student: A Marketing Perspective

By collegemktgrp | August 31, 2020 | Political Agencies

As the 2020 presidential election nears, campaigns are working hard to get college students to vote for their candidate.

College students have historically had one of the lowest voting rates of any demographic group in the country. Many students aren’t in their home state during elections, and they’re typically consumed with their studies and social life.

But in the 2018 midterms, college students voted at much higher rates than they typically have. In fact, the percentage of students who voted more than doubled from 19% in 2014 to 40% in 2018!

It stands to reason that college students will turn out in similar or even greater numbers this November.

The first step to getting college students to vote is getting them registered. In 2018, a big reason for the increase of college student voting was the increased focus on registrations by university and non-profit organizations.

Some of the ways that schools and other organizations are getting students to register to vote include:

  • Required check-ins at the beginning of fall semester that include the option to register to vote
  • University staff encouraging voter registration
  • Voting registration “competitions” between universities
  • Making voter registration a part of registering for courses or getting a student ID
  • On-campus voter registration parties
  • Text message reminders to register
  • Producing educational YouTube videos for college students on how to register, apply for an absentee ballot, and more
  • In-class voter registration
  • Email voter registration drives with direct links to online voter registration systems
  • Personal messages from fellow students on social media
  • One-on-one conversations between older students and incoming freshmen, encouraging them to vote
  • Development of websites with resources on how to vote in college

Despite these many efforts, there are still big barriers to getting students to register to vote. One of those challenges is in the user interface of voter registration apps, online forms, and even paper forms.

If you’ve ever worked in marketing, you can think of this issue in terms of a conversion rate problem: A customer wants to buy a product on a website. Somewhere between starting their checkout and completing their purchase, they abandon their cart.

The same problem exists in voter registration forms. A student wants to vote, knows they need to register, gets as far as the form itself, and then hits a wall.

Let’s look at what some of those “walls” look like.

How Registration Forms Keep College Students from Voting

Whether you’re looking at paper registration forms or online forms, there are many factors preventing college students from easily voting.

Problem #1: Confusing Labels

In the United States, every state has its own requirements and rules around voter registration. That means that every state’s voter registration form is a bit different.

Fortunately, in 1993, a law was passed that allowed for the creation of a national form, which is often what’s used by national organizations working to register college student voters (it’s way easier to use one form than 50 different ones).

The main problem, though, is that the national form has to be vague to be compatible with any state’s requirements.

Take the field labeled “ID Number.” Which number is that exactly? If you’re a college student left to your own devices to fill out a form, you probably won’t know. Some states require a driver’s license number, some a social security number, some just the last 4 digits of your social security number, and some require both. If you don’t know the requirements of your state, then you won’t know what to provide!

Problem #2: Lack of Online Registration Options

11 states in America don’t allow for online voter registration. This is a huge issue given that today’s Generation Z college students are used to being able to do everything on the internet.

It’s harder to reach students with in-person, paper forms than with online links promoted through email, text, and social media. And if students get their own form, they need to buy stamps, an envelope, and mail it in.

In the year 2020, most college students aren’t mailing physical letters in their day-to-day life: Many students report not even knowing where to get stamps or how to mail out a letter. It’s just something they rarely have to do.

Problem #3: Scary Legal Warnings

In the states that do have online voter registration systems, there are still barriers to entry for college students (and everyone else).

A big one is the prominence of legal warnings about the implications of falsely registering to vote. For a college student on their own, this kind of language is sure to be intimidating, leaving them more likely to abandon the registration rather than risk submitting a form they don’t fully understand.

Problem #4: Required Information That Isn’t Easily Accessible

Many online registration forms require more information than paper forms. So even if students get past the scary legal lingo, they might run into requests for information that they don’t understand.

For example, on New York State’s online form, it requires something called a “Document ID” from a driver’s license or non-driver ID. The confusing thing is that the document ID is not the same is the ID number on those IDs — it’s a separate number that is printed in tiny type on the back of the ID.

The registration form doesn’t explain that distinction, or how to find your document ID number. So a college student is likely to either throw their hands up in frustration and give up. Or worse, they put in the wrong number and submit the form, thinking they’ve successfully registered.

How You Can Apply Marketing Best Practices to Register College Voters

The problems outlined in this blog are easy to solve. In most cases, the reason these issues exist is simple lack of perspective.

If the designer of these forms understands the ins-and-outs of voter registration requirements, they won’t perceive any elements of their design to be confusing. But put it in front of a college student who has never registered or voted before, and you get a very different viewpoint.

In college student marketing, we solve this kind of problem for our clients all the time —  whether it be a brand whose social media voice is missing the mark, or a university whose enrollment marketing videos are too long to captivate attention.

It all comes down to understanding your audience. If your audience is college students, then you’ve come to the right place. College Marketing Group has decades of experience in helping brands, universities, employers, non-profits and political campaigns reach and connect with college students.

In marketing terms, voter registration is just like any other kind of conversion. And we know how to get college students to convert.

Read our guide on how to connect with college students to inspire them to vote >

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