There ARE elections in 2017!

By Anjelica Smith

The mad rush of gearing up for the 2016 presidential election is in our rear view, yet somehow it doesn’t seem any less busy! For starters, there are a number of important elections happening in 2017; Virginians and New Jerseyans will have the opportunity to elect a governor, there are a slew of special elections in North Carolina and elsewhere, and voters across the country are making their voices heard about public education in their communities. 

In my conversations with TurboVote implementers across more than 40 states, and while meeting civic engagement and student life professionals at the IMPACT Conference, the Eastern Region Campus Compact Conference, and the Gulf South Summit on Service Learning and Civic-Engagement through Higher Education, one theme is pervasive: How do we keep up the momentum and further engage student voters with the democratic process? 

Of course, this is when I love to tell the Harvard story. In the fall of 2016, Harvard University placed TurboVote within their mandatory online check-in process completed by all undergraduate students before the start of classes. During this process, which is powered by Oracle PeopleSoft Campus Solutions, students click through a number of screens to complete such tasks as updating their emergency contact information. One of these screens presented students with the option of signing up for TurboVote. All undergraduates were given the opportunity to take steps to register to vote, request an absentee ballot, and sign up for text/email notifications about upcoming elections. Nearly 1,400 students, about one-fourth of Harvard undergraduates, chose to do so. 

Ensuring all students have the opportunity to get connected with the information and materials they need to be lifelong voters is a lofty goal. It’s also an attainable reality when collaborators across campus come together to prioritize the civic duty of voting, like Harvard did. One way to spend your time this spring is to begin to identify online and in-person processes that all students or a bloc (i.e. first-year) of students pass through and explore how voter registration might be thrown in the mix. We learned through our research on integrating voter registration into campus web infrastructure that starting the conversation early with the registrar’s office, campus IT professionals, and faculty is the key to pulling off a TurboVote integration like Harvard. 

I’ve also been encouraged to learn about substantive programming and ongoing voter engagement initiatives on a number of campuses. In February, DePauw University organized a nonpartisan Civic Action Day. Organizers set up tables in the student union during the university’s dedicated lunch hour. Handouts on the views of elected officials  were distributed and laptops were available to look up legislative office phone numbers, as well as additional information. There were also prepaid postcards ready to be written on and sent. Students were encouraged to call and write their representatives during this drop-in event and staff were available to guide them through the process and answer questions. The men’s swim team coach also stopped by. He happens to be a city council member and was able to offer a perspective on the importance of staying involved locally. 

Local elections in the spring also provide a great opportunity to keep voter engagement salient. In Normal, IL, Illinois State University is gearing up for a mayoral and town council race on April 4. On-campus implementers worked to ensure their TurboVote link returned to a prominent location within their student portal during a dedicated three-week period. They are also messaging around important differences between the presidential election and this local election, namely revised early voting locations, so students know where to vote. 

In Missouri, Washington University in St. Louis organized a series of events early in the spring semester as part of their Politics 365 initiative. On April 4, a new mayor will be elected for the first time in 16 years and school board members will be elected, too. The Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement sponsored a bus for students to travel for free to a mayoral candidate forum. The Gephardt Institute also organized, “What’s at Stake in the St. Louis City Election,” a panel discussion and reception on economic opportunity, public and neighborhood safety, and public education in St. Louis. WashU advertises these events, in addition to registration deadlines and election dates, on an easily distributable one-pager. 

Are you doing something exciting to keep students democratically engaged in 2017? Let us know by emailing and we would love to profile your efforts!

Brandon Naylor