Voting Trends Across Minnesota’s Higher Education Institutions

According to the National Study for Learning, Voting and Engagement (NSLVE), there were 238,810 eligible student voters in Minnesota during the 2018 election. This is down by about 10,000 student voters from the 2016 and 2014 elections because of enrollment declines at Minnesota Colleges. The voting rate for all higher education institutions in Minnesota was 47.6%, almost nine percentage points higher than the national average for all NSLVE participating institutions (Table 1). The 2019 voting rate in Minnesota was 19.8 points higher than the 2014 election, and only 11.8 points lower than the voting rate in the 2016 election. This significant increase represented 50,918 more student voters than the 2014 election.

In the run-up to the 2018 election, the Youth Electoral Significance Index at CIRCLE said that “young people are poised to have an extraordinary impact at every level in Minnesota.2” By all accounts, student voters did have that impact. The student voters in Minnesota represent 4.4% of the vote share in 2018 and the increased engagement had an impact on the thirteen State House races that were decided by 4.4 percentage points or fewer3 (5A, 47B, 39B, 37B, 33B, 48B, 38B, 54A, 55A, 57B, 14A).

Table 1


Private Institutions

2-year public institutions

4-year public institutions

All Minnesota Institutions

All National Institutions

Voting Rate in 2018






Change from 2014 to 2018






Why does Minnesota have a higher voting rate for colleges and universities?
There are a variety of factors that support higher student engagement in Minnesota elections in 2018. The first is the organized effort to engage college students through their higher education institutions. Over the last several years, there has been a renewed effort on college and university campuses in Minnesota to promote civic learning as part of their core mission. In fact, the Minnesota State system convened a working group to develop a civic toolkit to support campuses in holding conversations about democratic engagement in the run-up to the 2018 election.

In addition, every public college and university has enrolled in the National Study for Learning, Voting and Engagement program. These reports give institutions and students the data they need to better understand the voting rates for every college and university in the state, allowing for deeper examination of where higher education institutions are doing an exceptional job at engaging their student population. Finally, private and public four-year institutions have civic engagement offices that also promote civic learning and democratic engagement. This institutional support has embedded this work to make it easier for students to participate.

Earlier this year, the University of Minnesota began a project to institutionalize voter registration by prompting students to register to vote during the class registration process. As reported by the Minnesota Daily, “it is not possible to reach 30,000 students just handing out flyers and catching students on their way to class,” said Christina Laridaen, MSA Government and Legislative Affairs Coordinator. “I think on a campus this size, integrated voter registration is necessary for us to be doing our due diligence.”5

The other factor influencing the high rate of voting for Minnesota students are the state’s election laws, which make it easier to vote through same-day registration and online registration. The states that have the highest voter participation rates all have strong election laws. Of the top five states, only Montana requires that individuals show a photo ID to vote.

Private Colleges led Minnesota higher education institutions in voting
The private colleges could be a model as we find ways to boost voter turnout among young people in Minnesota, as they have a 12.7 higher percentage of students voting compared to the public institutions. This rate increased from the 2016 to 2018 election. It is important to note that this data is incomplete because only 11 of the 17 private higher education institutions in the state participated in the National Study for Learning, Voting and Engagement, while 100% of the public institutions participated. Also, the student demographics of the private colleges, which have a lower percentage of PELL eligible students, lend themselves to a higher participation rate.

Minnesota is below average voter registration rate
The data reveals an area that Minnesota needs to improve upon to continue strong student voter engagement. The voter registration rate for Minnesota Students is 69.1%, which is 2.7 points lower than the national average (Table 2). This rate is up 7.9 points compared to the 2014 election. There are 111,257 eligible students that were registered to vote during the 2018 election.

Even with a lower than average voter registration rate, Minnesota makes up for this with a very high rate of registered and voted. In fact, Minnesota is 14.8 points higher than the national average for registered and voted. If Minnesota colleges can boost the number of students that are registered to vote, this would have a significant impact on increasing the number of student voters. We know that once students are registered to vote, they are much more likely to actually vote.

Table 2


Private Institutions

2-year public institutions

4-year public institutions

All Minnesota Institutions

All National Institutions

Registration Rate 2018






Registered and Voted Rate 2018







Racial disparities persist in political participation
The second area that Minnesota higher education institutions should focus on is the voter participation gap between white students and students of color. There are significant participation gaps with Asian Black, and Hispanic students (Table 3). The gaps were reduced significantly from the 2016 election for every community except Asian. The area of greatest concern is the voter participation rate of Black students in Minnesota, who are participating at rates at the national average. 

Table 3


Voter Participation Rate

Gap between white students

American Indian












Two or more races






There should continue to be an effort to improve the voting participation rates for these communities, especially because demographic shifts continue to happen in Minnesota. According to NLSVE data from 2014 to 2018, there is still a disparity in the vote share of communities of color and Native Americans when compared to the student population size. However, that disparity did decrease over the four year period.

In 2018, 29.7% of Minnesota students identify as student of color or Native American students. In the same year, their vote share did increase 7.7 percentage points to 24.9% in Minnesota. 

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