Commitment and Competition: How Georgia College Used TurboVote to Re-energize Civic Spirit in 2018

By Ella Michaels, 2019 Summer Associate

When Georgia College (GC) first partnered with TurboVote last summer and started drafting their 2018 action plan goals, Ruby Zimmerman ‘20, leader of TurboVote implementation on campus, had no idea how much traction her efforts would get with students or the administration, if any. As secretary of GC’s American Democracy Project (ADP) chapter and student coordinator for Voter Friendly Campus, she had a deep history of involvement with civic engagement efforts on campus and knew better than most how much they had suffered following the most recent presidential election; the ADP had experienced a steep, persistent drop in membership after 2016. 

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Few people on campus knew of TurboVote and fewer still of the fledgling partnership with the college. But armed with persistence, OrgSync email blasts, and a few dozen Halloween-themed Pop-Tarts, Ruby and her fellow implementers confronted that challenge head-on. Less than a year after the midterm elections, success was clear: Georgia College had generated almost 400 signups, exceeding their goal of 300 by over 30%. How did they do it? Read on! 

Step One: Find Allies & Their Resources

Ruby first heard about TurboVote in June of 2018 at the Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement meeting in Anaheim, California. She, ADP Vice President LeAnne Whitley, and ADP faculty sponsor, Rhetoric Professor Jan Hoffman, were presenting at the conference when they struck up a conversation with the Democracy Works team. Upon learning about TurboVote, Ruby recalls that she and Whitley turned to each other and decided, “We need this.”

After establishing a TurboVote partnership with Dr. Hoffman’s assistance, Ruby and her fellow implementers needed a way to easily spread the word about the tool to GC students. They started by meeting with Dr. Thomas Miles, Executive Director of Campus Life, who was very excited about TurboVote and what it could mean for Georgia College. Miles’ office coordinated student involvement through the Campus Labs platform OrgSync. Because virtually every GC student and organization has an OrgSync account, email blasts through the platform have a tremendously-wide reach; more than 7,000 students could receive them.

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Dr. Mile’s mass-email capability turned out to be very useful for GC’s TurboVote implementers, who worked with him to send campus-wide emails about TurboVote. Additionally, because OrgSync blasts were fairly rare, recipients were far more responsive to voter engagement emails than the often unopened, onslaught of campus activity messages on many hyperactive college mailing lists.

Step 2: TurboTabling

Mass emails were a simple, effective start, but to get Georgia College really excited about TurboVote, Ruby and other ADP members had to do more. GC’s Constitution Week, held annually during the week of September 17th, is the most significant civic engagement event on campus each year and also coincides with National Voter Registration Day. Events included debates and visits from local politicians. Large audiences during the week were common because of strong civic education and encouragement that extended to many professors offering extra credit for attendance. Ruby and the rest of GC’s TurboVote team became a fixture at Constitution Week events, tabling and getting students signed up.

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Step 3: Compete to strengthen democracy (or for a Halloween-themed Pop-Tart)

Ultimately, the most successful way to win the hearts, minds, and signups of Georgia College students involved a bit of competition. Ruby arranged for student organizations on campus to compete for prizes based on which group generated the most signups using customizable referral links which allowed her to track how many TurboVote signups came from each group. Additionally, at certain presentations, she entered every audience member who registered with TurboVote into a raffle for a gift card. One presentation for the Georgia College Honors Program alone generated more than a hundred signups, especially impressive given that the program’s membership totaled around 150 students!

Ruby and the ADP team did not just use the lure of competition to generate signups; they also used it to recruit volunteers to help table. For example, during Constitution Week when tabling activities needed to run more efficiently, for each hour that someone volunteered, the individual would be entered into a raffle. Volunteers did not need to have any prior involvement with ADP or experience tabling; Ruby would give new volunteers a fifteen-minute orientation with all of the information they needed. This was not just a great way for the core ADP team to lighten their own load during busy seasons and reach more people, it was also a great way to get more students involved and invested in fostering civic engagement long-term.

Finally, Ruby employed the age-old means to get students more civically engaged: food. Snacks were an easy way to draw hungry students to the TurboVote table at events. While standard variety packs of candy were certainly a staple, sometimes tablers mixed it up; in late October, for instance, Halloween-themed Pop-Tarts became a fixture at the ADP TurboVote tables.

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Looking ahead to 2020 and beyond

Exceeding expectations in 2018 was just the beginning: Ruby and ADP’s future plans include reaching out to the GC administration to get TurboVote incorporated into freshman orientation, running referral code competitions between residence halls to see which can generate the most signups, and teaming up with various academic departments and leadership organizations to create a campus-wide coalition of TurboVote implementers. Ruby, who is a Senator in GC’s Student Government Association (SGA), also plans to spearhead an effort to create a subcommittee for Civic Engagement and Voter Registration, which would use the resources and connections of the SGA to further institutionalize TurboVote on campus. GC’s track record and ambitious visions for 2019 and beyond demonstrate just how far the college has come from the tentativeness of early summer 2018 only months prior.

“Success doesn’t mean registering 10,000 people or 100% of students on campus...When you don’t have a ton of allies, every little thing really is a small success in the grand scheme of things.”

Though being a primarily student-led project meant that more effort was required to institutionalize TurboVote implementation at Georgia College, it also meant that project leaders like Ruby knew how to get other students equally excited about voting. In their first year, they did this using things like candy and competition. In their second, they plan to pursue strategies such as rebranding ADP to Bobcats Vote in order to generate more campus spirit and giving free t-shirts to new volunteers; both efforts will incentivize involvement and establish more recognition at events.

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Every voter counts

To achieve what Georgia College did in 2018, GC’s TurboVote implementers had to interact with hundreds of prospective voters at tabling events, presentations, and more. Some of those interactions, even seemingly small ones, stood out, and while GC’s strategies and tactics were the keys to their success, it is these small interactions that brought meaning to the work.

Ruby recalled that during a lull at her table on National Voter Registration Day, a student who had actually already signed up for TurboVote approached the table and thanked the volunteers for what they were doing. He explained that as someone who wanted to stay civically engaged but always had trouble remembering when elections were, he appreciated how much easier TurboVote made things. This simple expression of gratitude helped remind volunteers that behind each of the hundreds of TurboVote signups they generated was a new voter who now would confidently cast their ballot, all because of them.

Ruby explained that those small moments also reminded her that, “Success doesn’t mean registering 10,000 people or 100% of students on campus...When you don’t have a ton of allies, every little thing really is a small success in the grand scheme of things.” 

She concluded, “If I can stand out and table for fifteen minutes, and register three people to vote for the rest of their lives, that is a success.”

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