“We were amazed how many students registered to vote when we asked them in person,” says Kim Castle, lead author of the study. “On-the-ground campaigns definitely still have their place.”

NORTHWESTERN (US)—College students make strategic choices about where to vote, most prefer absentee ballots, and are especially likely to vote absentee if their homes are in swing states, according to a new study.

The researchers found that students from swing states preferred home-state voting by an 8-to-1 ratio. Even students from non-swing states preferred to vote in their home state by a 2-to-1 ratio.

Most students chose absentee voting even though absentee voting is more complicated than local voting, contradicting the assumption that absentee voting diminishes the number of ballots students cast.

Two Northwestern University students, Kim Castle and Janice Levy, conducted the study under the direction of Michael Peshkin, professor of mechanical engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. The in-person voter registration drive was held during fall 2008 on Northwestern’s Evanston campus.

“2008 was the first presidential election for most college students,” says Peshkin. “That’s often the moment when students emerge as political participants or political bystanders.”

“We were amazed how many students registered to vote when we asked them in person,” says Castle, lead author of the study and an organizer of the voter drive last fall. “On-the-ground campaigns definitely still have their place.”

The study found high turnout rates for both students who voted locally and those who voted by absentee ballot. Seventy-nine percent of students who registered locally voted, and 84 percent of students who got an absentee ballot voted.

More than 1.7 million students attend out-of-state colleges. A 1972 Supreme Court decision, Dunn v. Blumstein, eliminated lengthy state residency requirements that prevented students from voting in their college state. Since then, students who are away at college are eligible to vote in either their home state or in their college state. The same applies to military personnel at out-of-state bases as well as “snowbirds” and others with more than one home.

The Northwestern study concludes that students can be diligent voters with high turnout, both by absentee ballot and in local voting, and that students who can vote in their home state or their college state in a presidential election are strongly influenced in that choice by how close the race is.

The study also suggests that even in the Internet era, in-person voter drives reach many students who would not otherwise vote, and that given the choice, students from swing states will maximize the impact of their votes by voting in their home states.

The findings were published Oct. 1 by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University’s Tisch College.

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