Midterms–not usually a popular word on college campuses. But if midterm exams weren’t hard enough, in 2022 we also have midterm Congressional elections. (As well as contests for 36 governors, thousands of state and local officials, and countless ballot questions.)
Historically, young people have turned out to vote in lower numbers than other age groups.
But 2020 saw student turnout hit a record high, amidst a surge of interest in civic engagement and other factors. For colleges and universities that want to build on that momentum, now is the time to start making a plan.
Luckily, we’ve learned a lot about what helps get voters to the polls, especially young people. Here are 4 best practices to consider:
1. Make voter participation a priority on campus
Colleges and universities are recognizing the vital role they play in building civic habits.
Students look to their institutions for: encouragement to become civically engaged, accurate information about how to vote, and supportive policies and structures.
Schools can cultivate this by:
- Making an institutional commitment to voter turnout. This can be a written statement, the creation of a committee, or joining national challenges like the All in Campus Democracy Challenge. When leadership is vocal about their support, it sends a powerful message
- Allocating budget, team and time. Most institutions don’t have a single department responsible for civic engagement, which can make coordination tricky. Designating a point person (backed up with resources) can bring together different offices and ensure plans move forward.
2. Make the process easy for students
Students are likely to put off tasks that seem complex, new, or intimidating — like studying for exams or cleaning their dorm rooms. Voting often falls into this category.
The American electoral system is not simple or tech-forward, and includes tasks that may be new to 18-21 year olds (Try asking them where to buy stamps!) Moreover, many state legislatures have recently changed electoral rules, some of which make it more cumbersome to vote.
Colleges and universities can support students by providing clear information, bite-sized action steps, and plan-making tools — all delivered at the right moment and tailored to students’ unique situations.
Some areas to think about are:
- Registration: Offer students the opportunity to register to vote during orientation/move in and via online portals they’re already checking (like where they register for classes or turn in their assignments). When registering, students often face a complex set of steps: At home or on campus? At their dorm room or a common campus address? Your institution can guide students through these choices.
- Plans to vote: Absentee ballots, early voting, and in-person voting all come with different requirements, timelines, and practical considerations. Like with registration, timely and accessible information is key. Help students break down what each option means, what they’re eligible for, and how they can fit it into their schedules.
- Election Day: Provide a day off of classes or exams to allow students (and faculty and staff!) to vote and volunteer. The NCAA Division I Council passed legislation in 2020 to provide a day (#AllVoteNoPlay) on the first Tuesday in November dedicated to civic engagement instead of practicing or playing games. All students deserve the same opportunity. For voting reminders: deliver messages via multiple methods, such as text message, email, and flyering, since generic reminders can get lost in the shuffle.
3. Make it fun and social
When voting feels like an individual duty, it’s easy to miss deadlines or feel too busy — even with the best of intentions and information.
But when voting becomes a group activity, social accountability motivates us to come through.
Encourage student groups, dorms, Greek organizations and other networks accomplish tasks together. Think: Requesting absentee ballots and taking them to the mailbox on the way to a club meeting. Or heading to an early voting location together, with a group outing afterwards.
Finally, make Election Day a celebration! Before the pandemic, many colleges held rallies and parties to pump students up about voting. It’s not just fun — this is a research-backed strategy. The nonpartisan #Votetogether initiative found voting celebrations were associated with a 2 percent increase in turnout. You can also take the party online, encouraging students to share “I Voted” selfies.
4. Measure and reflect on your impact
After Election Day, your team will rightly want to know — did our efforts work? Did we increase registration and turnout? Are students satisfied with the support we gave?
It’s difficult to track student voter turnout because students who live on campus can choose to vote there, while others stay registered at home. But there are solutions that can help.
Joining the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement, which matches student enrollment data to public voter files, is one way to collect and contribute data. There are also tech-based solutions–like Motivote–that can help you track student engagement over time.
Supporting students’ voter turnout can seem like a daunting task and even a “nice-to-have” when there is so much for colleges and universities to accomplish. Yet if the goal of higher education is to prepare young people for the world ahead, we cannot afford to neglect civic education. Young people are in an exciting moment, just starting out in their role as voters. We have an opportunity to help them build great habits.
Want to make the task of increasing turnout less daunting for your team? Motivote can help.
Motivote empowers causes, colleges, and companies to run high-impact voter engagement programs that help people navigate the voting process. Our web platform contains youth-friendly tools to make voting easy, social, and fun – and simplifies the process for college and university staff looking to meet ambitious goals for civic engagement.
Want to learn more? Head to our Contact Us page and send us a note or schedule a time to meet.