Learning How to Overcome the Barriers of Student Voting

A woman in a dark shirt and glasses stands with a group of Democracy Lab students.
Associate Professor Jennifer Victor leads students in her “You’re the Voter” project.
Professor Jennifer Victor stands speaking at a podium.
Jennifer N. Victor

College students are an elusive group of voters. 

Looking at the low voter turnout rate among college students, it may seem as though they are disinterested in elections. But a new study in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University suggests college students face more barriers to voting than nearly any other population of voters and aims to determine how to get students to the polls.

Mason’s voter turnout record has huge disparities over the last few elections. For example, according to the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement based at Tufts University, Mason had record-high voter turnout in 2020—nearly 72 percent of registered students voted, including those who voted on campus, by mail, or in their home districts. But in 2023, despite a robust political climate on campus, Mason’s polling station in Merten Hall saw the lowest turnout in Fairfax County—only 12 percent of registered students voted there (excluding provisional ballots, which are not yet available). 

Jennifer N. Victor, associate professor in the Schar School, wants to understand what drives student voting and the best ways to overcome the barriers in student voting. This fall, she mounted a new project called “You’re the Voter,” which aims to increase voter awareness and turnout at Mason. Part mobilization, research, and experiential learning, You’re the Voter was open to students whose class instructors are enrolled in the program, offering keen insights into the motivations of an elusive voting bloc that has yet to emerge as a dominant force in American politics. 

Members of the Schar School Democracy Lab Learning Community assisted Victor with the project. Democracy Lab is the only Schar School residential learning community that is exclusively for first-year students. Together, the students take an introductory government course while also engaging in events, discussions, and field trips to learn about civic engagement.

Democracy Lab students delivered an experimental protocol by going into classrooms and providing information about voting and encouragement to vote. Other classes only received emailed encouragement, while about one-third of classes in the study received no added information about voting.

A watch party was hosted for election night on November 7, 2023, and an open invitation was extended to all Schar School students to gather and watch the live results of the Virginia election. After the night ended, Victor shared some of her preliminary results.

Historical data on turnout at the Mason campus polling place (Fairfax County precinct 134 “University”; VA House of Delegates district 35; Senate district 11; Fairfax Count Braddock District)


Registered Voters



















*Excludes provisional ballots for all except 2021, which is inclusive of provisional ballots.

Jennifer Victor stands on the far right along with a group of Democracy Lab students.

The year 2023 saw an increase in the number of registered voters in the Mason precinct relative to 2021 and 2022. Mason saw a roughly 20 percent increase in registered voters from 2022 to 2023.

Turnout at the Mason student polling site has been declining over the past four election cycles. Turnout in 2023 was 29.4 percent lower in relative to 2022, with only 12 percent of registered voters.

Victor will not know which motivation method was the most effective for turning out students until she receives the final tallies of voting data from the state, which she expects in early 2024. In the spring semester, she will work with Democracy Lab students to analyze the study data and draw conclusions about how to best get students to the polls.

Victor and her campus and community partners, including the Provost’s Office of Community Engagement and Civic Learning (CECiL) and the League of Women Voters of Fairfax, celebrated the students and faculty who participated in the study at a breakfast event on Wednesday, November 29.

“The people in this room, and elsewhere on campus, are the village that makes voting happen and keeps democracy resilient,” Victor said to the group.