How Voter Registration Inspires Civic Engagement

We’re in the midst of what some are calling the “golden age of student activism” on campuses. UCLA’s Higher Education Institute’s most recent data suggests that 1 in 10 incoming freshmen expect to participate in protests when they arrive on campus.

That said, the spirit of activism is more expansive than simply protesting — students want to make an impact on their community, with 39.8% of them wanting to be community leaders, and 22.3% hoping to influence the political structure. Further, the the number of students saying they have a “very good chance” of voting in the upcoming elections is up 9.5% since 2014, with 59.8% of incoming freshmen seeking to vote.

The community organizer in me sees this data and is simultaneously overcome with both joy and anxiety. Joy because students are wanting to get involved, and anxiety because this means student affairs professionals have even more work to do in order to ensure our students are registered to vote. The foundation of being politically active begins with that underwhelming flimsy voter registration card.

It all sounds easy enough: “Just get registered!” The sad reality is that those wallet-sized pieces of paper are increasingly difficult to get as sweeping voter disenfranchisement laws disproportionately target young people, in addition to lower income folks, and people of color.

On top of that, students are often quite transient, and not always familiar with the registration and voting laws in their new home. The good news is that there’s an actual day each year dedicated to registering voters — National Voter Registration Day. This year’s NVRD is September 26, 2017.

Established in 2012 by the National Association of Secretaries of State, the fourth Tuesday of every September is the official day to host events, though voters can (and should) be registered at any time throughout the year. After the establishment of an entire day, the NVRD organization was formed to provide a structure for organizations to host voter drives. Providing resources in the form of webinars, state-by-state info on rules and regulations, and marketing materials, the NVRD organization assists with a lot of the heavy lifting work required to host a voter drive. They’ll send out posters, stickers, and help with doing press for events if you register with them.

That said, it’ll still be on you and your team to identify some of the answers to the questions below:

  • Where can we host this drive on campus? Pro-tip: If your main registration hubs are outside, have a few inside areas reserved in case of bad weather.
  • What do we need to do in order to have a table on campus where we can register voters?
  • When are the best times of the day to have folks out canvassing (or at tables across campus)?
  • Who can volunteer to help us register voters?
  • What other organizations can we partner with to get resources and info out to students?

Other things you’ll need:

  • Printed voter registration forms
  • Clipboards & pens  
  • Table, chairs, table cloth

It’s also helpful to review the rules and regulations for voter registration for your specific state to understand when voter registrations have to be submitted to the state office of elections, what forms of ID students need to bring when they vote, how they can request mail-in ballots, how they can get assistance voting if they need it, and where their polling locations are.

Most campuses actually serve as a polling location, which makes it easy for students come election day. If yours doesn’t, it’s helpful to have cards or stickers with their polling locations listed on them during your outreach efforts on NVRD and leading up to Election Day. You can even apply to become a local polling place!  As Election Day approaches, you can also reach out to local non-profits to partner in providing rides or creating ride-sharing opportunities for students who don’t have access to a vehicle.

Aligning yourself with other organizations to help provide election resources and reminders can also help expand your impact. For example, if your campus works with TurboVote or Rock the Vote, you can highlight those resources across campus sites and social media accounts leading up to NVRD and Election Day to ensure students have access to all of the information they need.

Since campuses are homes to such a diverse variety of folks, you never know who you’ll catch with a voter registration drive — new faculty and staff members who have just moved to the area, folks who have just changed their names, and those students who just moved all might already be registered, but may need to update their information. Voter registration is an equal opportunity need, and you never know just how many people you can help out!

Furthermore, as student activism and community engagement continue to grow, voter registration can serve as the foundation for longitudinal programming and education about community officials and issues. Some programs you could start off with are:

1. On-campus forums with local city council candidates

Have the SGA host a forum to question local city council or mayoral candidates about issues impacting students, such as affordable housing and access to public transportation. This is an opportunity to start building those long-term relationships with local officials, and helping students understand the impact that local government can have.  

2. Joint SGA & City Council Meetings

Once the city councillors have been elected, invite them back to campus for a bi-monthly or semesterly joint SGA and City Council meeting. This is an opportunity to select one or two major issues that impact the students that the city can partner with the students to collaborate on.

3. Student Day at the Capitol

Moving further than just city councils and county commissions, the state legislators make decisions that will impact everything from a student’s health care, to their tuition rates (unless it’s a private school). Because of this, connecting students to their legislators, and the decision making processes through a structured day can help them understand the impact they can have beyond just voting.

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A government nerd since the days of Schoolhouse Rock, I love love love hearing about your civic and government engagement programming. What do you plan to do for NVRD? If you’re hosting a voter registration drive, send us some pictures tagged with #NVRD and let us know how many new registrations you submitted!

PS: Despite no longer working on a college campus, I still love helping schools register voters! As the Voter Services co-chair of the St. Pete League of Women Voters, I sign up to work at campus Civic Engagement Fairs & Welcome Week events to register and educate student voters! One of the perks of working at Presence is the opportunity to take days off to volunteer — so I’ll be on the USF St Pete & St. Pete College campuses with volunteers on NVRD day as well. I’ll make sure to let you all know how many registrations we can stack up!


Lindsay Murdock

About the author: Lindsay is a Campus Outreach Coordinator for Presence. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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