Written by Clarissa Unger, Civic Engagement Director for Young Invincibles and a guest contributor for the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge. Read the article below or on Forbes.com
The year was 2008, and I was an undergraduate at the University of Kansas (KU). November was quickly approaching, and I was anxiously awaiting the first election I was eligible to vote in. Though I was studying political science and was very engaged on campus, when it came time to actually register and vote, I needed help. As young voters new to the process, many of my fellow students also faced challenges figuring out how to register and where to vote.
At KU, it was staff at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics—an institute on campus dedicated to promoting political and civic participation as well as civil discourse—who helped me navigate the voting process. Beyond that, they organized events with politicians, journalists, and subject-matter experts that helped me become not just a voter, but an informed voter. Their dedication to promoting civil, public discourse by always offering both sides of any issue and fostering debate taught me how to not only discuss polarizing topics with people that I did not always agree with but how to be friends with them as well. After all that I learned at the Dole Institute, when Election Day came in November, I was ready.
Colleges and universities across the country have a responsibility to graduate active and informed citizens and to foster civic learning and democratic engagement, but not every campus has the resources to do this well. Because of this, since the fall of 2015, the organization that I work for now—Young Invincibles—has convened a national coalition of over 150 nonpartisan groups to form the Students Learn Students Vote (SLSV) Coalition and to help provide campuses with the resources and expertise they need to ensure that in the future, no college student will struggle—like I did—to figure out how to register and vote.
SLSV Coalition Partners understand that while voting is just one form of civic participation, it is fundamental to the success of our democratic society, and it is measurable – so we can clearly see progress. In fact, the Higher Education Act of 1998 specifically requires that colleges and universities make a “good faith effort” to distribute voter registration materials to all of their students.1
Unfortunately, a “good faith effort” just isn’t cutting it on most campuses. The National Study of Learning, Voting & Engagement (NSLVE) found that only 45 percent of students in their study, which included 783 higher education institutions, voted in 2012.2 In 2014, that number dropped to 18 percent, meaning only 18 percent of college students made their voices heard in the last midterm elections.
Colleges and universities across the country must more effectively promote voter engagement among their students. To aid in this, the SLSV Coalition created a set of guidelines to help campuses feel confident promoting voter registration, voter education, and voter mobilization among their students.
First, campuses should identify someone to lead and coordinate these efforts. Too often, voter engagement efforts on a campus are uncoordinated and only reach certain communities of students on a campus (i.e. political science students or those already engaged). That’s why, after someone is chosen to lead these efforts for the full campus, we encourage them to sign up for the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) so they can see—even by area of study—where students are underperforming on their own campus. Following enrolling in NSLVE, we ask the campus lead to convene a committee of representatives from student affairs, academic affairs, student leaders, and other areas on and off-campus to coordinate campus-wide voter engagement efforts and together write an action plan that can be shared and learned from year after year.
SLSV Coalition Partners fully believe that campuses that put in this much effort to ensure their students are engaged and voting should be recognized for their efforts—which is where the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge comes in, an important partner in the SLSV Coalition. The ALL IN Challenge is a national recognition program for colleges and universities committed to increasing student voting rates that elevates the work of campuses with large percentages of their students voting. Over 260 campuses across the country are now participating in the Challenge and I am very proud to say that my alma mater, KU, is one of them!
Colleges and universities can and should educate students as active citizens. But that means doing more than giving a “good faith effort” and really ensuring all of the students on campus have the tools and resources they need to fully participate in our democracy. A great first step is connecting with the SLSV Coalition—or one of our Coalition Partners—and signing up for the ALL IN Challenge. It’s time for every college and university in our country to move from “good faith” to #allin4democracy.
1 1998. Higher Education Amendments of 1998. 105th Congress.