Duke’s voting landscape heading into the 2024 presidential election, by the numbers

As the 2024 presidential election approaches, what voting patterns can be expected from Duke students? The Chronicle looked into past voting landscapes at Duke to get some answers.

The University's latest student voter engagement report, which analyzed voting trends from 2020, reveals a mixed landscape of above-average participation in national elections alongside gaps in data regarding student demographics and local voting habits.

This data compares Duke’s voter engagement to the more than 1,200 other participating institutions.

Duke’s voting rate

The University’s overall voting rate — the percentage of eligible students who voted on Election Day — during the 2020 presidential elections was 70.2%, 4.2% greater than the 66% average across all institutions, according to data from The National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement conducted by the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University. Student voting habits exhibited a similar trend in the 2016 and 2018 midterm elections.

In the NSLVE, a university’s voting rate is the product of two metrics: registration rate and yield rate. The registration rate is the percentage of eligible students who are registered to vote. The yield rate is the percentage of registered students who actually voted on Election Day. The product reflects the total percentage of eligible students who voted, and provides the most holistic metric of the university’s voter engagement.

Over the three election cycles included in the report, Duke’s voter registration rate was below average. However, since its yield rate outpaced other institutions, its voting rate was situated above the national average.

In 2020, the University had a registration rate of 79% compared to the 82% national average. When the comparison pool is narrowed to only include private, four-year institutions, Duke’s statistics fall even lower compared to the average. However, this reflects an improvement from the University’s 14.1% differential from the average in 2018 and 7.6% in 2016.

However, Duke’s yield rate stood at 88.8%, significantly higher than the national average of 80%.

Even during the 2018 midterm elections, which historically have lower voting rates than presidential elections, the University’s 64.5% yield rate was almost 12 percentage points higher than the national average of 53%.

The University’s student voting rate, the product of the registration and yield rates, increased by 14.5% from 2016 to 2020, rising to 70.2%, about 4% higher than the national average of 66%. 

When compared only to private four-year institutions, Duke’s rate in 2020 was just 0.2 percentage points above the 70% average.

Voter turnout based on age 

Duke students who were 18 to 21 years old surpassed those who were 22 to 24 years old in voter turnout in the 2020 elections. These two age groups make up the majority of enrolled Duke students.

Students who were 18 to 21 years old had a 65% voting rate, while those who were 22 to 24 years old had a 41% voting rate.

The University’s youngest students also proportionally outvoted students aged 25 to 29 and aged 30 to 39 in both the 2016 and 2020 elections. A higher proportion of older voters at Duke voted in the 2018 midterm elections.

The 40- to 49-year-old and 50+ age groups consistently outvoted their younger counterparts. Although these age groups comprise the smallest portion of Duke students, their engagement numbers remain the highest.

Missing data: race/ethnicity, sex and local election voting habits

While highly informative, NSLVE data only provides a partial picture of democratic engagement at the University. Other factors, such as race and ethnicity, gender and voting location are not included. Local election voting rates are also not included in the report.

“We’ve had several pushes over the years to campuses trying to communicate the importance of them reporting that [race/ethnicity] data,” said NSLVE Director Adam Gismondi. He added that since reporting demographic data to the National Student Clearinghouse is optional, many universities choose simply not to report it.

“Our data structure is purpose-built only to send student information needed for federal compliance,” wrote Frank Blalark, associate vice provost and university registrar. “This means that we are always mindful of the sensitivity of our student data and try to avoid sending sensitive information whenever possible.”

The Institute points out that, without race/ethnicity data, there is no way to report equity gaps in students’ turnout rates. 

To promote equitable political mobility, Gismondi said it is important that “campuses make every effort to report as complete data as possible … [since] it allows you to have more of a comprehensive context to how your institution is doing on issues of political learning and democratic engagement.”

Local elections are “undervalued and underrated,” according to senior Pilar Kelly, student voting coordinator of Duke Votes. ​​She added that the extent of students' involvement in local politics remains unclear.

According to Blalark, the University has never collected data on municipal elections. 

Only 1,543 voters aged 18 to 25 cast their votes in Durham's municipal election in November 2023. However, without data on the proportion of students registered to vote locally versus in their home state, a full understanding of local voting habits remains incomplete.

These seemingly low engagement numbers may be due in part to a lack of on-campus voting. 

“We don't have early voting for local elections, that was an issue,” Kelly said.

According to Kelly, student voter turnout may increase if the Karsh Alumni and Visitors Center becomes an early voting site, since it would be more accessible to students without cars.

“It would be great if we could propose a project to learn more about the voting patterns within our student academic community,” Blalark wrote.

Factors driving voting and yield rates

Universities have historically struggled to improve student “yield” rates, but Duke stands out as an anomaly.

“It seems to be easier to get students to register to vote than it is to get them to actually turn out to vote” due to the structural and internal barriers students face, Gismondi said. 

Duke’s voter yield rates “jumped out” to Gismondi as something the University is “doing really well,” despite the complex internal and external barriers to student voting.

The University's Government Relations Office collaborated with the Durham Board of Elections to set up Karsh as an on-campus early voting site.

The Office of Government Relations also supports Duke Votes, a student-run initiative that provides online and in-person resources to educate, register and mobilize students and staff to vote. Duke Votes has disseminated Student Voter IDs, run in-person presentations, hosted registration drives and more to provide pathways to voting.

“​​It's definitely a priority of Duke, for us to make sure that we're providing students with all of the resources they need about registering to vote, whether it's in North Carolina or in their home state,” said Katie Lipe, assistant director for state relations.

Kelly said Duke Votes helps answer students' questions such as “'What do I do if I'm from out of state?’ ‘Can I even vote here?’ ‘Do I need an ID?’” She said that voting is “complicated and mystifying” due to North Carolina’s new voter ID and precinct laws.

Although she worries about the impact of new barriers to student voting, Kelly is optimistic that Duke Votes and other grassroots organizations will continue to successfully get out the vote in 2024. 

“There’s going to be a lot of activity, a lot of energy again by people that are really excited to vote again,” she said. “... I think there is going to be a lot of people going out to the polls voting in their first presidential election.”

Rae Rackley

Rae Rackley is a Trinity sophomore and a staff reporter for the news department.    


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