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A Day at the Polls: Encouraging Civic Action on Election Day

Civic Engagement LEAD Initiative
February 12, 2019 Kimberly Piatt Associate Director of Community Development

At times, it can seem that getting students registered is the easy part of our work – it’s everything else that comes with it that is tough. At The College at Brockport, a SUNY institution in the great state of New York, we had the opportunity to participate with other schools around the Rochester area in a pilot program called the Monroe County Election Fellows. While the primary purpose of the program was to recruit students to serve as poll workers on Election Day, the additional outcomes that were achieved proved even more rewarding.

The Overall Concept

Picture your last trip to the polls. Who was there to assist you? For most, it was retired individuals who work in this capacity year after year. It is not often that college students are pictured among this group.

Established by the Rochester Center for Community Leadership at The University of Rochester and the Monroe County Board of Elections, the Monroe County Election Fellows Program was established as a coalition of seven area colleges recruiting elections inspectors who would spend the day at the polls. The efforts would be coordinated in large part by two Election Fellows at each institution – one registered democratic and one registered republican in following with the Monroe County requirements for equal representation between the two major parties. The two fellows at each institution spent months planning and implementing the program and received a stipend of $1,000 for their work. At Brockport, our fellows recruited more than 60 students who were interested in being an Elections Inspector, trained more than 40 students and ended up with 34 students actually working on Election Day.

Challenges Faced

New York State’s intricate voting system can often be difficult to navigate. Proposed legislation is hoping to change that, but during the 2018 election cycle, much work had to be done to explain to students their rights as voters. To be a poll worker, students first needed to ensure that they were registered as a republican or democrat in Monroe County. As a result, many students needed to change their registration status. More challenging, however, was the need to have equal numbers of registered democrats and republicans. The College at Brockport has been struggling over the past few years to provide republican students with an opportunity to be actively represented on campus. As a result, recruiting republican poll workers proved difficult. We also faced difficulty with providing transportation for students who do not have their own vehicle. Finally, the length of the commitment, a 16 hour day from five in the morning until nine at night, deterred some students from participating.

Unintended Outcomes

While the primary purpose was to find students willing to work on Election Day, one of the unexpected benefits was an increase in the number of students registering to vote and paying attention to the midterm elections. Even students who did not end up working on Election Day still completed voter registration forms and some even attended the training to learn how to be a poll worker. There was also increased buzz around campus about voting. Additionally, our office was able to build connections with students that we did not have previous contact with. Most of the students who were recruited do not hold leadership positions on campus but this program enabled us to broaden our reach. Recently, we were able to reach out to this group to advertise student government positions, which resulted in several students running for positions as a result. Finally, the learning that the two fellows experienced was significant. Both were firmly situated in their political parties and expressed initial hesitation about working together on the project. But by the end of the experience, the two were able to engage in thoughtful dialogue and a greater understanding of the other’s views.

Lessons Learned

When considering implementing this on your own campus, there are several lessons that can be gained from the experiences at The College at Brockport. First and foremost, establishing a formal partnership with the county Board of Elections was paramount to the success of the program. We were fortunate enough to have an entire coalition led by a local college, but in the absence of that, creating a formal system with the individuals running your process will make all the difference. We were able to designate students directly to polling sites and assign them according to car pool groups. Secondly, utilizing students to serve as the primary recruiters was highly effective. Our two fellows were extremely involved and connected on campus, but were also from two very different spheres of influence which allowed us to reach a broad representation of students. Finally, the students who worked at the polls reported feeling a stronger connection to the community, a sense of appreciation for the relationships they formed with other poll workers, and the desire to work on Election Day again in the future.

Looking to the Future

Currently, the Monroe County Election Fellows Program is being discussed for next year, dependent upon support from county legislature with respect to funding the fellowship. However, conversations have already begun about how to continue the partnership regardless of financial support from the county. In the first year, the program was immensely successful and the opportunities for future growth are substantial.