Why Institutions Should Expand Voter Registration Efforts to High Schools

Gaby Ortiz Flores, Coordinator, Democratic Engagement & Special Events, University of Nevada, Reno

July 9, 2018

According to the U.S. Census Bureau statistics, only 33% of young voters between the ages of 18-24 voted in the 2016 general elections. While we as educators in institutions of higher education do need to focus on voter registration and voter education on our campuses, research conducted by M.N. Franklin (Voter Turnout and the Dynamics of Electoral Competition in Established Democracies since 1945) shows that the voter turnout rate when a cohort first becomes eligible to vote has long-term impact. He also shares that young voters are unlikely to vote since they frequently lack knowledge of politics and also become eligible to vote at a time in their lives when they move from their familial homes (and thus are largely separated from older adults). Some like CIRCLE (The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement) argue that one way to ameliorate this would be to target high school students in voter registration and education.

In 2017-18, the Center for Student Engagement at the University of Nevada, Reno launched Vote Power in an effort to address the low voter turnout amongst youth. Part of why we decided to focus our efforts on our local high schools is because 30% of our undergraduate students come from the local high schools. Additionally, given the research and data on youth voter turnouts, we recognized that we had a great opportunity to start creating civic action with our future students while simultaneously providing our current students with building their civic agency around voting. Although the initiative just ended its pilot year, it took two years to build relationships with Washoe County School District (WCSD) in order to start laying the ground work for the program.

In the fall of 2018, after receiving support from the local school district, we began working closely with government teachers and the Registrar of Voters office to prepare and train undergraduate students to go into high schools to run voter registration drives. College student volunteers were trained in voter registration and given guidance regarding how to comport themselves in a non-partisan way. They also went through background checks in ordered to be allowed into the high schools. We paired up our volunteers to make sure that they had one other person with them for support, and had professional staff present at every location in case the volunteers and/or high school students had questions. Additionally, because our transit system in Reno is limited, we provided our volunteers with transportation to and from the schools using university-owned vehicles.

In addition to preparing our volunteers, we also wanted to make sure to meet the needs of our high schools. We scheduled drives with each high school base on their availability. We also provided three different formats of the program based on the needs of the school. For example, Vote Power volunteers walked entire senior government classes through the voter registration form one section at a time in order to ensure accuracy and to allow opportunities for students to ask questions. Almost all of the high schools, except for one, allowed us to go into their government classes to do this voter registration form walk-through. Some high schools allowed us to go deeper by giving us time to do a presentation on the importance of voting. Only one high school requested tabling as they were limited on time. We tried to accommodate high schools as much as possible, but trying out the three different formats allowed us to learn what worked and what didn’t work.  

Having never done an initiative like this before, we wanted to give ourselves permission to experiment and to learn from our mistakes or from challenges that we encountered. We learned, for example, that we need to strongly encourage schools to continue to allow us to come into their government classes. This was the most effective way of reaching many students all at once and connecting the voter registration process with what they were already learning in the classroom. Another thing we learned, is that the presentation that we had put together, for some of the schools, was not engaging and not going deep enough into discussions around the importance of voting. For the upcoming year, we plan on incorporating tools from Theater of the Oppressed and story circles to engage students in deeper conversations on the importance of participating in the democratic process. We also realized after the year was over, that we needed to provide a way to follow up with students to remind them to vote. We’re currently in the process of establishing a text message list for students who are interested in getting election reminders. Another important lesson we gained has to do with the collection of data. We did not start to collect data until the end of the year, mainly because we were focusing on the development of the program. That said, we now have a better understanding of what data to collect and the purpose the data, and are now working on tools and methods of collecting the data in order to better measure the success of the program. These are only some of the challenges and lessons we learned, and yet, we believe that the program is a success.

In total, we went to six high schools with  24 undergraduate volunteers and registered 951 high school seniors. We worked with 19 teachers directly and were granted access to 53 high school classes of about 28-32 students each. Throughout the year we collected informal and formal feedback from the volunteers and from the teachers. Overall, the feedback we’ve received has been positive and appears to fill a gap that is sorely needed, particularly in some schools. Some may wonder whether it is a university’s role to do this work in high schools. However, in talking with teachers, with our volunteers, and with colleagues like Dr. Niall Michelsen, who is conducting research on youth voting, we have become more affirmed in our belief that this work is important and that we do have a responsibility to do this work in high schools. In essence, expanding our voter registration efforts to high schools serves three purposes: 1. It allows institutions of higher education to help incoming students to build strong voting habits before they set foot on campus (thus potentially improving institutional voter turnout rates), 2. It provides current undergraduate students with an educational and service opportunity by teaching high school students how to register to vote, and 3. It affords those who will never matriculate at any college with a voter education opportunity. In other words, by conducting programs like Vote Power, we, as institutions, are modeling the civic engagement values and capacities that we seek to build in our students. 

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