With the 2020 election fast approaching, you’ve likely seen multiple reminders to get out and vote this fall any time you scroll through social media. Recent spikes in voter turnout for college students and young adults have put the spotlight on young people’s political beliefs and spurred speculation on how this may influence the upcoming presidential race. But turnout for STEM students seems to be lagging behind their politically engaged peers. Let’s break down what this means.
How does STEM compare?
From 2014 to 2018, voter turnout in the midterm elections for 18- to 29-year olds saw the greatest increase of any age group, rising from 20 to 36 percent. This increase in the youth vote seems promising, but studies have shown that college students majoring in STEM are less likely to vote than their peers. A study conducted by the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education (IDHE) at Tufts University on student voter turnout found that in both the 2012 and 2016 elections, students studying STEM disciplines had the lowest voting rate. Only 43.6% of STEM college students voted in the 2016 election, compared to 53.2% of students studying social science, the field of study with the highest voter turnout. Beyond voting, STEM students seem overall less politically engaged than their peers. Students who take more STEM courses have been found less likely to attend political meetings or donate to campaigns, while engineers have been found to be the least involved in social activism.
What about STEM graduate students?
While a breakdown for STEM graduate students compared to graduate students in other fields has proven elusive, graduate students are overall more likely to vote than undergraduates. The same study by the IDHE found that for the 2016 election 53.1% of eligible graduate students voted, compared to 47.2% of undergraduate students. This is consistent with studies revealing the correlation between age, education, and voter turnout. However, this number is still lower than the fraction of the overall citizen voting-age population that reported voting in this election: 61.4%. Even without a statistic for STEM graduate students specifically, it is safe to say that our numbers could likely also use some boosting.
Why are we not voting?
In short, there is no simple answer for the decreased voting rates of STEM majors. Less emphasis by STEM faculty on the importance of political participation and civic-oriented majors consisting of students who already harbor an interest in politics are both possible contributors. However, factors beyond simply a student’s major are likely contributing to these statistics. For example, STEM majors tend to be younger and male compared to those studying health professions or the humanities. After accounting for age and gender, however, STEM majors still have a lower voter turnout rate than students studying education, humanities, and social sciences, even though the probability of their voting increases by 2 percentage points and rises above students studying health professions. Breaking this data down by race and ethnicity also shines some light on voting behaviors among college students. Female Asian STEM majors were more likely to vote than their counterparts in the humanities, even if students studying humanities had a voter turnout overall that was higher by 4 percentage points. Even when race and ethnicity are considered, education majors were the group most likely to vote. All in all, both students’ academic experiences and individual characteristics seem to shape their civic behavior. However, beyond examining the nuanced relationship between college majors and voter turnout, the lack of STEM students at the polls remains a cause for concern.
Why does the STEM vote matter?
Now more than ever, science and technology play a critical role in our society and are at the forefront of many public concerns and political issues. From the ever-growing urgency of the climate crisis, to concerns surrounding Big Tech, to decreased protections for endangered species, to the regulation of food safety inspections, to debates over abortion ethics, to the current handling of the pandemic and race to develop a coronavirus vaccine…there’s no denying that science is interconnected with our political landscape. Young voters with knowledge of these disciplines therefore have an opportunity and responsibility to amplify the scientific voice in politics with the hopes of bettering the general public’s quality of life. Furthermore, in its December 2018 report, the Committee on STEM Education of the National Science and Technology Council emphasized the civic benefits of STEM education by claiming that “A STEM-literate public will be better equipped to conduct thoughtful analysis and to sort through problems, propose innovative solutions, and handle rapid technological change, and will be better prepared to participate in civil society as jurors, voters, and consumers.” Science is often put on a pedestal of objectivity and separated from politics, when in fact an intimate interplay exists among science, society, and politics. In recognizing how these lines are blurred, STEM students and professionals can see how they in fact do have a duty of civic engagement and public service, with voting in the 2020 election being just the first step.
Make sure that you are registered to vote and have completed an absentee ballot request form to prevent the pandemic from standing in the way of your voice being heard in the November 2020 general election. (Contrary to the catchy title, you will not actually have to physically leave your lab if you are concerned about the risk of virus exposure at polling booths). You can check your voter registration status here and complete a voter registration application here; your absentee ballot request form can be mailed or completed online. The Civic Engagement Team of the Graduate and Professional Student Federation at UNC has also created a calendar that can be uploaded to your favorite calendar app and features key dates, including suggested deadlines for mailing registration forms, absentee requests, and absentee ballots. Your county’s Board of Elections will have additional information on voting this fall.
After you have ensured that your own voice will be heard, be sure to encourage your fellow STEM students to do the same! STEMvotes has even compiled some resources for promoting the campaign, and organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the American Association of University Women (AAUW) have provided means of getting involved in supporting expanded voting access for all during COVID-19. Happy voting!
Peer edited by Fanting Kung