WashU combines forces to reach 30% voter engagement

In 2016, the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement at Washington University in St. Louis quadrupled its voter registrations compared to their tally in 2012. WashU engaged 30 percent of their student body on TurboVote last year and made 17 appearances on TurboVote leaderboards. The private research university in St. Louis, Missouri has hosted more presidential debates than any other institution in the country. While debates provide incredible learning and participation opportunities for students and the community and excellent exposure for the university, WashU takes political and civic engagement seriously all year. 

This year, WashU established a joint campus initiative called WashU Votes. The committee brought together stakeholders with an interest in civic engagement on campus, including representatives from the Gephardt Institute, the student union, the graduate professional council, the public affairs department, and campus life. 

The Gephardt Institute had a key role in organizing the four WashU Votes teams. These teams included programming, student funding, marketing and communications, and voter engagement. 

Specifically, the voter engagement team was comprised of over 80 faculty, staff, graduate students, and undergraduate students. The Gephardt Institute provided support and oversight, primarily through its Voter Engagement Fellow. In the spring of 2016, the Gephardt Institute hired a graduating senior for this short-term position. The fellow worked part-time during the spring semester and then full-time from May to December. Some of the fellow’s many responsibilities included coordinating with offices across campus, researching best practices in voter engagement, creating voter engagement content, communicating with media, and serving as the point person for all voting-related inquiries. 

The Voter Engagement Team had three subcommittees: the Brain Trust provided input into major initiatives such as Constitution Day and National Voter Registration Day, Community Champions were charged with promoting voter engagement in communities across campus, and the Voter Registration Squad served as the boots on the ground at numerous voter registration drives.

The dedicated students and staff on the Voter Engagement Squad participated in voter registration trainings that included an overview of TurboVote. In total, they tabled at over 25 events. Some of their more successful experiences included setting up in front of the student center on Constitution Day, National Voter Registration Day, during the Community Service Fair, and at the Sophomore Resource Fair. They found less success tabling at events with speakers and talks related to politics, as audience members tended to have up-to-date voter registrations.  

The large coalition of groups and offices involved with WashU Votes were able to leverage  relationships to support their expansive efforts. For example, ten tablets with signature-capturing capabilities were loaned to WashU Votes by Dell. This was critical to support WashU’s tabling across campus. 

In addition to using TurboVote while tabling on campus, WashU integrated TurboVote into their student portal. Organizers chose WebSTAC, an online gateway where students register for classes and update their contact information. Numerous campus-wide emails inviting students to sign up for TurboVote were sent from different senders including the university chancellor. There was also a TurboVote signup competition among Women’s Panhellenic Association organizations. WashU is now exploring a permanent placement for the TurboVote link.

WashU organized a number of events to engage students including post-debate civic dialogues, an absentee party to be inclusive of students voting by mail, an election results watch party, and a collaborative initiative called “November 9th and Beyond,” to encourage continuous political dialogue.  

The Gephardt Institute takes a “Politics 365” approach which includes engaging students in local elections and offering educational programming focused on learning about key political issues and skills needed to engage in the democratic process. “What’s at Stake in the St. Louis City Election,” was a panel discussion of community leaders on economic opportunity, public and neighborhood safety, and public education. They’ve also organized a “Skills for Democracy” series to provide students with practical tools for being engaged and are collaborating with other stakeholders on an academic symposium on American democracy. Because voter registration is not a one-time experience, WashU is working to identify which online bottleneck will make the best permanent home for their TurboVote site.

Brandon Naylor