Sports fans know the Big Ten Conference as a powerhouse of college athletics. Ohio State v. Michigan is arguably the nation’s hottest football rivalry. In most years, Big Ten schools including Michigan State, Wisconsin, Purdue and Indiana are in the thick of the fight for the NCAA men’s basketball championship.
Now the presidents of the 14 conference schools (shouldn’t they call it the Big Fourteen?) have agreed to a compete in a new arena: voting.
In a letter to their 320,000 students this week, the college presidents said the inaugural Big Ten Voting Challenge will award trophies to the university whose students record the highest voter turnout in the 2018 midterm election and the school with the most improved turnout.
“One of the most important values we teach at our universities is the importance of civic engagement,” the presidents wrote. “Voting in elections gives our students a voice in the democratic process and in the decisions that affect local, state, and national issues. The Big Ten Voting Challenge is a nonpartisan initiative to encourage students to exercise their right to vote, which is among the most fundamental opportunities to be an active and engaged citizen.”
Though they have more at stake on Election Day than most other Americans – simply because they have longer to live with the decisions we all make – students are notorious for their non-participation in our elections. The Big Ten presidents’ letter notes that voter turnout on university campuses for the 2014 midterm elections was just 19 percent; just slightly more than half the turnout among the public at large.
“We know we can all do better,” the presidents said. “Our democracy thrives best when all voices are represented, and students can play an integral role in shaping our collective future.”
The Big Ten Challenge sets an example for other college conferences, one that’s much needed. As Common Cause noted in a report released last year, “Tuning In and Turning Out,” turnout among students and other young voters is declining even as Millennials (those aged 18-35) have overtaken Baby Boomers to become the largest generation of living Americans.
The challenge also is an indirect rebuke to state legislatures that in recent years have actually been working to make student voting more difficult. At least seven states do not accept college-issued identification cards as verification of a prospective voter’s identity and 12 do not accept out-of-state government-issued ID such as driver’s licenses.
Office: Common Cause National
Issues: Voting and Elections