Colleges, voter registration, and a historic opportunity: a more detailed proposal
by Paul Rogat LoebWhat would be the impact if America's campuses got as many of their 17 million enrolled students as possible registered to vote and participating in the fall campaigns? My sense, from recent youth voting patterns, is that it would make a major difference.
Commentators have been bemoaning students' political detachment for years—the separation of far too many from critical public issues. New institutions have emerged to address this, from the national higher education service learning network Campus Compact to Rock the Vote and the New Voters Project of the PIRGs. But students kept saying their actions didn't matter. Many believed that the electoral sphere was so inevitably corrupt that their participation made no sense.
This election feels different. Young voters and volunteers are surging into campaigns in numbers we haven't seen in decades. In 2006 they made the key difference in countless House races and half the Senate seats that changed hands. Their interest now is even greater. The question is whether we'll give them the tools they need to act in a way that will make the greatest possible 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 help set them on a path of engagement for the rest of their lives. Given the persistent gap between potential and actual student voting, the more they participate, the greater difference it will also make in November's electoral outcomes—and therefore in the fundamental direction of our country.
REGISTRATION AND ENGAGEMENT
To vote, however, students need to be registered, and many aren't. They often don't realize they need to register until the peak of the fall campaign season, when in most states it's too late. When they can't vote, that also diminishes their participation in other ways, like volunteering or talking about the election with others.
In response, both Campus Compact's 2008 Campus Vote Initiative and the Your Vote, Your Voice project of the Washington Higher Education Secretariat, (a coalition of the major Washington DC Higher education groups), have pulled together excellent websites giving schools all the resources they need to register all eligible students to vote, and then get them engaged in more active ways, across partisan lines. But neither has budgeted money for direct staff outreach. As a result, their efforts risk having far less impact than they otherwise might.
Drawing on successful recent campus engagement examples, the websites offer an array of useful resources, suggestions, and templates to help schools involve their students, with the goal of creating the maximum possible turnout and engagement. The two initiatives are now coordinating and passing the word to their networks through their email lists and newsletters.
To first goal of both is for colleges and universities across the country to register students to vote as their students register for fall 2008 classes, participate in orientation programs, take courses, work at campus jobs, and pursue co-curricular activities. The two websites offer a wonderful range of ways to do this, based on interviews with successful voter registration programs at widely differing campuses. They suggest a variety of concurrent approaches including offering voter registration forms as part of the regular sign-up process for classes, distributing them in conjunction with student loan and work-study disbursements, giving to professors to hand out in their courses, and setting up registration drives in the residence halls and at athletic events.
In addition, these initiatives encourage schools to help students reflect on the pivotal choices they'll be making. They highlight successful approaches like having faculty weave election-related themes into their fall courses, setting up campus-wide days of discussion, and participating in programs like the National Communication Association (NCA) and the American Political Science Association's DebateWatch project. The goal is to help or students to recognize how profoundly this election will affect their individual and common futures, and help them make informed choices.
Finally, the initiatives encourage schools to help students volunteer with their favored candidates, of whatever political stripe. That means ensuring that each student has information on how to participate in the campaigns. Schools can encourage their students to knock on doors offering their fellow citizens an opportunity to engage with critical issues beyond 30-second attack ads. Even if they're in areas without close races, they can make phone calls through the remote calling efforts where voters in areas with less competitive races call those in swing states. Students can also participate in related off-campus efforts. I mentioned the Baldwin Wallace leadership students who registered 700 eligible prisoners in the Cleveland jail. Had these students not engaged them, the prisoners might not eve known that they were able to vote, yet this was just a single leadership class in a small liberal arts college. Imagine the impact if larger schools took up similar projects.
If we promote these efforts well enough, they can shift the electoral landscape. I once met a Wesleyan student who 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 Congressman 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, plus I'm kind of shy." But the issues impelled her to take the psychological risk. Had she not, the district would have elected a different representative.
STRENGTHS AND LIMITS OF THE CURRENT INITIATIVES
We're now in a historic moment where students are clamoring to get involved, on a level unprecedented in decades. But how many end up participating will depend on the structures their colleges create to involve them.
Right now, both key national initiatives risk falling short. For all that they offer every conceivable resource to help campuses engage their students in this election, neither budgeted for significant staff follow up. So no one will be calling individual campuses to make sure they participate, and participate as fully and most effectively as possible. These kinds of person-to-person approaches are what got 1900 campuses involved, for instance, in the major campus global warming teach-ins, Focus the Nation. They were key to the national day of community global warming rallies, StepitUp07. For all that email outreach can reach vast numbers of people, for projects this critical you need more intimate follow-ups. Otherwise we risk most schools giving the national initiatives just cursory attention.
In an ideal world, the two initiatives would be funded for comprehensive staff follow-ups. Because they aren't, they won't be able to do the person-to-person outreach that's key to get campuses in their networks as fully engaged as possible. And at this point, their major institutional funders operate on too long a time-line to come up with additional support. Add in that Campus Compact's national office is preparing for a major move from Providence to Boston, and much as I'd like to think that the national groups will suddenly come up with new resources, at this it point it looks doubtful. As a result, I fear that many schools will simply fall through the cracks in terms of participation.
If this is true, we'll end up with plenty of campuses that do a wonderful job, registering and engaging the bulk of their students. But many others will simply put out some registration forms, circulate some announcements, and assume that they've done all that's necessary. And some won't get involved at all. That will leave far too many students on the sidelines.
STATE CAMPUS COMPACTS--THE LOCAL ALTERNATIVE
There is an excellent alternative, however. I've talked to the directors of Campus Compact affiliates in key states, and they'd love to hire energetic graduate students or other temporary staffers to help them do local follow-ups, complementing the national campaigns with direct personal outreach.
I've worked with local Compact affiliates for years and marveled at the quality of people they've drawn into their network. So I'd trust them immensely on finding exactly the right individuals to hire for this task. Because work regularly with most of the campuses in their states, so already know the best people to approach, whether campus service learning directors, sympathetic college presidents, or the coordinators of student activities. They also know the culture of these campuses, so know which schools will run with the campaigns on their own and which will need an additional push. They know local voter registration procedures, so can help schools steer their students through their bureaucratic mazes. And because they're located on college campuses, they have access to an easy pool of potential additional staffers.
The people they enlist would contact each campus in their state, make sure that they're participating, and follow-up on their progress, using a check-list from the national website. If no effort was happening, they'd have readily available networks that they could use to begin one. If the school had started something but was missing key aspects or participants, they'd do their best to help them follow through, using suggestions collected by the national initiatives from successful previous efforts. They'd be perfectly situated to help the national efforts realize their full potential.
Because the state offices don't have surplus resources in their existent budgets, the funds are going to have to come from outside. The costs of this effort are extremely modest, roughly $11,000 for each half-time person hired between now and the election. Working the entire summer and early fall, even a single part-timer person could make a major difference in a key state like Ohio. For $220,000, or less than what the presidential campaigns will be spending in a single average day, we could help the state Compacts intensively cover 15 key states, allocating two or three people to some of them, and potentially affecting both the presidential race and multiple senate races as students get involved, across political lines, and make a difference in the most competitive races all over the country. At $50,000, such an effort would fund five half-time people and spread the effort to several different key states.
As mentioned, I'm taking on this project without pay (and even investing $5,000-10,000 of my own resources, plus several months of time) because I see a need and an opportunity. If successful, this model could also be adopted for future elections with the support of larger funding institutions. But it's going to take money to accomplish.
Otherwise, I'll see how much I can raise and then allocate resources in consultation with the state offices, with priority going to states with highly competitive national races.
Of course students aren't the only young voters who'll need help to get engaged in this election. The off-campus efforts of groups like Project Vote, America Votes, the PIRGs, League of Young Voters, and RockTheVote are critical, since non-college youth historically vote far lower. But students are the low hanging fruit. They're easiest to get involved because they're gathered together on their campuses, and because their schools all have the structures to involve them if the simply follow the templates and approaches suggested by the national campaigns. And if their schools get them engaged in election volunteering and not just voting, they can help get many other historically underrepresented constituencies to the polls. The national projects have done great work in providing these first first-rate tools for campus voter engagement. But they've stopped just short of the goal line by not allocating resources for person-to-person follow through.
I'm asking for your support to close that last remaining gap, and create the maximum possible chance that among the 17 million students on America's campuses, every one who's eligible is encouraged to register, vote, and participate as fully as possible in the critical fall campaigns.
I think this project is important enough that I'm donating two or three months of my own time to try and maximize its success, an in-kind donation of roughly $10,000, plus $5,000-10,000 that I expect to donate directly, out of my speaking date earnings. I'm doing this because I believe these efforts can make a major difference in a critical historical time. I hope you'll be able to participate as well.
Since the campus voter involvement efforts will be non-partisan, donations are fully tax deductible. Illinois Campus Compact has volunteered to use their 501 (c) 3 status to take contributions without an overhead charge, and then pass the money along to the other state offices that I select. Checks can be made out to Illinois Campus Compact, but mailed to my Seattle address so I can keep track of them and then forward them on.
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. His previous books include Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. See www.paulloeb.org To receive his articles directly email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: subscribe paulloeb-articles.