Engaging Students as Volunteers and Voters

October 9, 2008

What would it take for the overwhelming majority of eligible U.S. college students to register, vote, and get actively involved in the November elections -- and in subsequent elections? For years, educators have bemoaned the political detachment of students -- the separation of so many from public issues that profoundly affect their lives. Too often, students have said their actions didn’t matter, or argued that the electoral sphere is so inevitably corrupt that it makes no sense to participate.

This election feels different, though. Young voters and volunteers are surging into the campaigns in numbers we haven't seen in decades. They're interested and concerned, and they want to make a difference. The question is whether we'll give them the tools they need to participate fully in a watershed election, as volunteers and voters. That means helping them register to vote, giving them opportunities to learn and exchange ideas about the issues, encouraging them to volunteer with one or more campaigns or with nonpartisan voter mobilization drives, and helping ensure that they turn out at the polls.

Young voters have been becoming more interested in electoral politics for a while. Between 2000 and 2004, turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds jumped 11 points, from 36 percent to 47 percent, and among the larger pool of 18- to 29-year olds, it rose from 40 percent to 49 percent. In 2006, youth turnout rose by another 3 percent, more than any other segment of the electorate, and young voters made the key difference in half the Senate seats that changed hands.

This election promises to involve our students far more, with even greater potential impact. When citizens start voting and volunteering at a young age, these habits tend to stick. So if we build on their newfound passion and concern, we could set them on a path of civic engagement for the rest of their lives. This includes finding policy solutions to the issues they address through their volunteer work -- which means, among other things, voting for candidates whose positions on these issues they approve.

A variety of organizations are working to support college student involvement in the election on a nonpartisan basis. Campus Compact -- a nonprofit higher education association that supports all forms of civic engagement on campus -- has established a nonpartisan initiative to boost voter registration and education among college students. As part of this effort, the organization has created a comprehensive website that brings together key resources, tools, and models from around the country, www.compact.org/vote. Another key site, www.YourVoteYourVoice.org, offers additional resources. And the student PIRGs have created a superb online registration tool, available at www.studentvote.org, which colleges can customize and post on their own Web sites.

Registration is the first challenge, of course, although in most states the cut-offs just hit. Students often don't realize they need to register until the peak of the fall campaign season, when in most states it's too late. And when they can't vote, we have to work harder to get them participating in other ways, like volunteering or talking about election issues with others.

For future rounds, we can remedy this situation most easily by registering students to vote when they register for fall classes or as part of orientation. Springfield College in Massachusetts registered students as they moved into the dorms and has set a goal of registering all eligible students on campus. Ohio’s John Carroll University has created a designated election Web page, set up locations to register students throughout campus, organized debate-watch parties, and established an election-related discussion series covering issues such as the importance of youth voting and civic engagement, the economy, abortion, immigration, and social justice.

If your state’s registration deadline has yet to hit, or if you have same-day registration, many more options are still open. Faculty can hand out registration forms in their classes. Student groups can set up tables at high-traffic areas like the student union. A residential campus could invite student government and student organizations to register people in the dorms -- the University of California Santa Barbara used this approach and registered 2,400 voters in a single night. Financial aid offices can distribute registration information in conjunction with student loan and work-study disbursements. Our technology departments can pass the word through voice mails, text messages, and e-mail reminders -- something they can also do for absentee ballot deadlines and for getting students out to vote on election day. The more we can recruit both students and faculty to register students in whatever creative ways they can, the more likely we’ll engage the vast bulk of our college students.

However many students we’ve helped register, our challenge now is to help them think critically about the choices they'll now be eligible to make. Given major issues that affect students -- from global climate change to the Iraq war, from the financial bailout and an uncertain economy to the escalating costs of higher education -- students need to understand where the candidates stand so they can decide who best reflects their own beliefs. Campuses can encourage professors to weave election-related themes into their courses throughout the fall, by scheduling discussions and debates (including on local races and initiatives) both in larger campus venues and within classes, and by working to get all students to recognize how profoundly this election could impact their individual and common futures. We need to do everything we can so that every student in our classes and on our campuses feels welcomed and feels their political beliefs are respected. That may even mean bending over backwards to encourage the voices of students whose views we disagree with. But so long as we do that, and make sure the materials we present do justice to the realities, we have a responsibility to use our classrooms to explore the difficult issues of our time.

We can do even more than helping students vote and vote thoughtfully. We can also encourage them to volunteer with the national or local candidates they choose to support, whatever their party affiliations, and with nonprofit civic groups that seek to involve the community. In 2004, for instance, two small leadership classes, at Ohio's Baldwin-Wallace College, registered 700 eligible inmates in the Cleveland jails. This year, the professor is assigning her students to volunteer in the local McCain or Obama campaigns, in local or state races, or in nonprofit registration efforts -- and then to write a paper analyzing their experiences. North Carolina Central University is encouraging students to help with major off-campus registration drives in the adjacent communities. Given sufficient institutional support, these kinds of efforts can make a tremendous difference.

How many of our students would volunteer, for instance, if we distributed information on the local McCain and Obama campaigns, or gave out the Web sites, or found ways for them to get involved even if they live in states where the outcomes of the presidential or senatorial races are pretty certain. We could, for instance, encourage them to participate in the voter calling programs that both of the national campaigns are running, where people in states without close national races use their extra cell minutes to call those in states where every vote can matter. So long as we make clear that who the students choose to volunteer with is their choice, not ours, we can encourage all this while still remaining meticulously nonpartisan.

Imagine if we worked through our service-learning networks to get a significant percentage of our students knocking on doors, making phone calls, having conversations that offer their fellow citizens an opportunity to engage with critical issues beyond 30-second attack ads and 1-minute TV sound bites. Once students begin to volunteer in these election-related efforts, they are far more likely to keep doing so throughout their lives. It's also a way to amplify the impact of their voices, as they reach out to others, both on campus and off.

Campuses can integrate these kinds of activities into existing service-learning and civic engagement programs. After the students go out and work with the campaigns of their choice, they could then return to their classrooms, reflect on what they learned, and share their experiences with their peers, including students volunteering for opposing candidates. These kinds of involvement could also connect them with role models of engaged community members. There's nothing like working side-by-side with an 83-year-old volunteer to teach a 21-year-old about keeping on for the long haul.

If we promote these efforts enough, they can shift the electoral landscape. Several elections ago, a Wesleyan University student registered 300 voters on her 3,000-person campus, and educated them on the candidates' respective stands on the environment and access to education. The lawmaker she supported ended up winning by 27 votes. This young woman almost didn't act "because I didn't think of myself as a political person." But the issues impelled her to risk. Had she not gotten involved, the district would have elected a different representative. Whatever we think of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, we can learn from the approach of the college he founded, Liberty University, to offer buses to take students to the polls and even cancel classes on the day of the election.

Once we register our students, we can encourage them to vote through voting pledges, e-mail, text messages, posters and fliers, student-to-student phone banks, and coordinating transportation to off-campus voting sites. In some states, colleges also need to let students know what they need to do to satisfy restrictive ID laws and provide them with whatever will meet the requirements -- for instance, through a university ID or a zero-balance utility bill for students living in the dorms. We also need a parallel process to help students who will vote absentee (www.longdistancevoter.org offers lots of the necessary tools). And, one way or another, we need to give them a sense that their votes could make the difference.

Considering the impact of this election on the future our students will inherit, we owe it to them to do everything we can to encourage them to participate, while respecting the wide variety of political views and experiences on campus. Given recent trends, they're likely to respond, if we offer them the relevant opportunities. Again, we wouldn't be prescribing the support of any particular candidates. The students would make those choices on their own. But we'd be giving them a powerful opportunity to make their voices matter, and possibly take the first steps toward becoming engaged citizens for the rest of their lives. If we believe that civic education and engagement are part of our mission, this seems a powerful historic moment to rise to that challenge.


Paul Loeb is author Soul of a Citizen and The Impossible Will Take a Little While. Maureen F. Curley is president of Campus Compact, a national higher education association dedicated to educating students for social responsibility. Sherry Morreale is director of graduate studies in the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

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