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KC Update: Civic Engagement

Region IV-W
October 8, 2020 Christopher Miofsky Washburn University

It’s election time again! One of my favorite times! This year will undoubtedly be a big election. I read stories daily about voter turnout and the one, overarching theme is the increase in student voting and the push by our institutions to engage students in the democratic process.

According to the Campus Vote Project, Millennials and Generation Z voters make up the largest share of eligible voters for the first time. Student voters have increase from 19% during the 2014 election to almost 40% in the 2018 election. I feel we can safely assume that this percentage will increase this year. Data obtained from the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) shows that the student voting bloc is narrowing the gap between themselves and their older counterparts. The 2018 election saw increased diversity with “the largest voting rate increase across racial/ethnic groups was among Hispanic students, up 22.5 percentage points (from 14% in 2014 to 36.5% in 2018). Every racial/ethnic group of students has a higher voting rate in 2018 than in 2014.” Further, NSLVE reported that “women in college continued to vote at the highest rates in 2018, with Black women maintaining their position as the most active voters on campus, and Hispanic women making the most significant gains.” Students across all groups need to be supported and encouraged, but how do we do that?

Starting by building a coalition around civic engagement. Doing so creates a buzz about the democratic process and provides opportunities for students to engage each other. This coalition could morph into a standing committee meeting regularly in the lead up elections, but also after (more about that in a moment). Encourage staff, faculty, and students to serve on this committee to centralize information sharing and messaging. Many constituencies on campus support voter engagement. A centralized committee brings these resources together. We are stronger together than we are apart.

Use all available campus resources. Whether a campus wide email through a student organization management system, talking to classes, or tabling (just to name a few) there are many opportunities to provide this information to students. Do not stop talking about civic engagement and the democratic process once the election is over. Keep talking. Keep educating. Keep engaging. There are many opportunities for engagement between elections (that is a blog all on its own…lol). One resource I have found most useful is the institution specific NSLVE data. Using this data, we can determine where our are and fill them. We can also determine what educational programming we should provide. You can find more information at: https://idhe.tufts.edu/nslve.

Off campus and community partnerships are just as critical to our success as our on campus partnerships. Organizations like the League of Women Voters, LoudLight, or Campus Vote Project (again, to name a few) provide invaluable information and support. Utilizing these resources provides expert voices for training and engagement. At the same time, it also creates necessary community connections for our institutions which are invaluable in our community engagement work.

Utilize NASPA! The Civic Leadership and Democratic Engagement Knowledge Community has a plethora of resources. Do not hesitate to contact your regional KC representative for more information and support.

Social media is an exceptional tool to reach campus constituencies. I find having voter specific social media is most successful as messages do not get lost in other campus or department media. Doing so also provides specific opportunities for students to engage and ask questions. Do not let it grow dormant between elections. If it grows dormant, folx will stop engaging. Use your coalition as well! It is a good idea to have someone on your committee with a public relations or social media background. Tap your Public Relations Office for more information or recommendations. Use student testimonials. I think we can all agree students listen to each more than they listen to staff/faculty. Have student leaders film short videos on why voting is important, how to register, etc. Consider allowing a student leader to do a social media takeover as they go to the polls to vote. These are engaging actions that are easy to spotlight and energize students.

This year, Millennials and Gen Z are a larger voting bloc than ever before. For our students, many may have never voted before so it is important that we reach them early to help them through their first time at the polls. We should consider voting the and democratic process as part of new student experience curriculum. Whether delivered by student orientation leaders or in a classroom setting, we should consider adding civic leadership and democratic engagement to the curriculum. Those providing the curriculum should be trained to remain non-partisan and how to help groups/classes remain non-partisan. Voting is not, nor should ever be, a partisan issue. We must all work together to ensure that every eligible voter has the opportunity to easily cast their vote.

Voting continues to be a critical topic. We must strive to help our students understand the steps and benefits to voting. Year after year, we hear pundits, analysts, and commentators talk about candidates courting this or that voting bloc. How long until students are a bloc unto themselves? Sooner than we think!