“Register to vote! Unless you’re from North Dakota”: Four Steps to Encourage Voter Engagement

Hailey Goplen, M.A., Assistant Director for Civic Engagement, North Dakota State University

October 14, 2016

When you think “North Dakota”, what comes to mind? Cold winters, perhaps? Oil out west? The movie, Fargo?  Maybe more recently, Carson Wentz? One thing you may not know when it comes to our state of less than 750,000 people, is North Dakota is the only state where you do not need to register to vote.

With the perceived ease of voting, this means all eligible North Dakota State University (NDSU) students must rush to the polls, right? Wrong.

With slightly more out-of-state students attending NDSU than in-state (51.1% out-of-state vs 41.3% in-state), many students want to vote in elections for their home states. Additionally, voter turnout for those between 18-29 years of age is consistently lower than other age demographics. Ninety-six percent of all NDSU students fall within this age range.

With this information, NDSU was faced with a challenge:

How do you clearly communicate voting requirements when the requirements are radically different between North Dakota and other states, all while simplifying the voting process and educating voters?

Step 1: Know your voting laws.

In order to encourage voter engagement, it is imperative to know voting requirements and how they apply to students. While some students will find answers to their voting questions no matter the hurdle they encounter, others may be deterred when faced with an obstacle. This means it is our responsibility to understand and clearly communicate voting laws as much as possible.

Unfortunately, each state comes with its own deadlines, forms, and processes related to voter registration, ID laws, and absentee voting. With a large percentage of out-of-state students, it is an impossible task to keep track of laws and deadlines for every state represented at NDSU. So, how do you serve all students?

Step 2: Simplify the voting process for students.

To serve all students and make voting information as simple as possible, NDSU purchased TurboVote.

TurboVote is an online platform that simplifies the voting process. Students sign-up and are walked through registering to vote (if necessary), requesting absentee ballots, getting the location of their voting precinct to vote in-person, and setting up election day reminders, all based on their primary state of residence. This tool helps simplify voting for all students no matter the state they are from. However, TurboVote is only effective if students sign-up.

Step 3: Partner with student groups.

The best way to reach students is through other students. To do this, we’ve partnered with Student Government, Fraternity and Sorority Life, Residence Life, College Republicans, College Democrats and more. While we (NDSU student affairs) provide the materials, student groups provide the voices and creativity to get the word out. For example, Student Government tabled in the student union with laptops encouraging TurboVote sign-ups on the spot. Fraternities and sororities competed to get the largest number of members signed-up for TurboVote. Residence halls hung posters and competed between halls for sign-ups.

With a plan in place to funnel students towards TurboVote, our attention turned towards political education. Yes, we want students to vote, but we want them to be educated on the candidates and measures as well.

Step 4: Provide pizza.

As a public institution, navigating topics of political engagement and education about candidates and ballot measures is a balancing act. We want to encourage students to vote, but it has to be done with absolute zero bias. While it would be easier to avoid any programming where political dialogue occurs, it would be a disservice to our students and against a goal of higher education to foster informed citizens.

We are currently planning a facilitated dialogue program to discuss the 2016 election called, “Join the Pizza Party: Let’s Get Political”. This event will bring students together to discuss all things election related. The NDSU Democracy Wall will be used as a tool for facilitation with the question: “If elected, how would each presidential candidate impact your life?” In addition, participants can randomly select topic cards to spark conversation. And of course, pizza will be served. 

And then what?

While it is too early to say whether these steps have been successful in addressing the challenges NDSU, and many other colleges and universities face with regards to political engagement, we are hopeful they are steps in the right direction.    

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