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Teaching Students to Vote? Challenging Assumptions Through Intentional Practice

Civic Engagement LEAD Initiative
November 2, 2018 Adam Gismondi Institute for Democracy & Higher Education

In 2018, the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education (IDHE) released Election Imperatives, a report that asks campus leaders to examine their own assumptions about student political learning and participation and to develop informed voters as part of their core educational work. In examining these assumptions through our own research, we found one barrier for students that has been historically under-addressed: intimidation about the political process. In fact, a foundational problem is actually that some students simply don’t know how to vote.  Our work at the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education shows that many academics take for granted knowledge about the physical act of voting, whereas students repeatedly told us that the process is mystifying.

One tangible step that we suggest colleges and universities can take to this end is to buy, rent, or borrow a voting machine or booth (whatever fits with local polling place technology) and let students practice and learn the process before election day. This was a practice that we had seen already in place on some campuses and was found to be successful. Recently, we put out a call to find out if institutions were actually taking this step for the 2018 elections, and we are happy to report that the trend seems to be taking hold. Some examples:

  • At Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, two students used a National Voter Registration Day grant and support from the Campus Vote Project to create an event called “The Voting Experience.” The event walked students through the voting process, complete with the interactive task of feeding a ballot through the voting machine, which was aided by the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections.
  • At Montclair State University in New Jersey, student ambassadors from the Andrew Goodman Foundation worked with the County Clerk’s office to borrow a voting booth on National Voter Registration Day. This allowed students to learn how to vote, alongside other mobilization stations like a registration desk and a “pledge to vote station.”
  • In October, IUPUI held a mock election, and at this event the local board of elections brought in sample ballots, as well as voting machines for students to try out.
  • In some cases, civic organizations have worked in conjunction with college campuses to make the voter education process more accessible. In Minnesota, LeadMN purchased five voting machines and have been lending them out campuses all over the state, as well as offering campuses sample ballots and guides to prepare for the elections.

Countless other examples of standout work in developing educated student voters have been popping up this election cycle as well. A sampling:

  • At Western Carolina University, the Center for Service Learning has done a great deal of work around demystifying the voting process and voter education. As an example of how local contexts can shape this work, WCU is in a state where six amendments to the constitution are on the ballot, so the office has a central hub for sharing sample ballots, resources on the issues at stake, and information on how to engage further in the election.
  • At James Madison University, a series of videos were produced to help inform students and simplify the voting process. One example is a video that shows students how to fill out an absentee ballot in the state of Virginia.

As colleges and universities across the United States seek to improve the educational opportunities for students that foster a long-term campus climate for positive political learning, we see emergent innovations and promising practices.  By developing informed voters by teaching voting basics, information literacy, history and the current state of voting rights, we believe that educators can build a system that benefits our democracy. When 2018 midterm data from IDHE’s own National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) is released in mid-2019, these campuses will have the opportunity to see how these and other interventions impacted their student electoral participation. In the meantime, the colleges and universities that are taking an honest look at their own practices, resources, and assumptions around student political participation and working to engage students should be recognized. They may be showing us the way forward as a field. 

Adam Gismondi, Ph.D., is Director of Impact at the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education and is a former student affairs administrator.