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Friday, October 23, 2020

Promoting student engagement in the political process

First time voters can get overwhelmed by propositions on the ballot, but the Bipartisan Policy Center is working on educating students about them for this upcoming election.

The Bipartisan Policy Center held its second annual student civic engagement webinar on Constitution Day on Thursday, September 17. Experts in the field of voting participation joined college students to discuss ways to get students to vote in the upcoming elections.

“Election season isn’t coming anymore. It’s here,” said Matt Weil, director of the Elections Project at the BPC.  

Weil brought up the fact that students face some of the highest barriers to vote. They are young and new to the process. This can represent hurdles because of different state laws and the fact that election officials need a certain type of ID to allow students to vote.  

Nancy Thomas,  the Director of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education (IDHE) at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life talked about how she views these voting restrictions as “unnecessary” and “suppressive.”

“We need to have a national conversation about the quality of the voting experience,” Thomas said. “But the problem you point out with college students is that they are mobile, and they are young and that combination is a disaster for voting. They have a dual burden that most Americans can solve with one identification card and that’s a  driver’s license.” 

College and university students have notoriously low voter turnout. In 2014 only 19% of college students voted. But, Thomas said the 2018 midterm elections “awakened a sleeping giant” causing the voting rates of college students to double at 40%. 

“By comparison, Americans don’t vote at very high rates, and the midterm election was a  record high for Americans,” Thomas said. “So, 40% of college students and 50% of average Americans, I think college students are creeping up on the rest of the American population.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced its own share of complications in voting. 

“This election, it’s even more important because registration is so much more complicated due to COVID,” Thomas said. “But the real problem with college students is they don’t follow through. The percent of students who are registered to vote, who then go on to vote is very low. That means all the effort that’s going into registration isn’t necessarily being replicated at the time that students need to vote.” 

As COVID-19 conditions make the voting process more difficult, college campuses are trying to increase motivation and drive students to vote by hosting Zoom discussions and informing students about what is on the ballot.

Mackenzie Meadows, president of Black Girls Vote at American University Chapter, explained how she is helping members of her organization prepare to cast their ballots. 

“Our primary focus for this current election is really honing in on what students’ passions are during this time period, especially with COVID and protests regarding racial inequity,  and focusing on their power and passions and utilizing that to be put into the polls come election season,” Meadows said.

Emily Garcia, National Director of Youth Development and President at Arizona State University Chapter, Bridge USA talked about how her organization is helping students articulate their values and see the connection in casting their ballot. 

“We’re committed to having biweekly discussions surrounding some of the most  controversial political topics,” Garcia said. “By having these conversations and giving a  space where you can have a diverse student population come and be exposed to different ideas, some that they’ve never even heard of before, they are able to fully articulate and find and identify their own values and be exposed to other people’s values.” 

Anna Connole, a Democracy Fellow for the Center for Civic Engagement at James Madison University, helps students learn about local issues and candidates, and how to be a knowledgeable voter at local elections. 

“We are there all year and we helped to break down the technical barriers to voting struggles,” Connole said. “We want to help build up their confidence and become an informed voter.”

Students may feel disappointed with politics which causes them to disengage with the voting process. Meadows explained that working with local organizations to help the community is another way to engage in politics aside from voting. 

“A lot of the students say when people come at them and tell them it’s important to vote and to make sure they’re registered to vote, they feel as if people are making it seem as if voting is the one-stop solution to all the social issues within the United States of America,” Meadows said. “But there are other forms of getting involved through community organizations such as Black Girls Vote. We get involved with making voting more accessible while recognizing that kind of hurt and exclusion that they feel is the main way of advertising the importance of voting as this one foundational step to getting and achieving those personal needs.” 

Thomas said that elected officials serve those who vote and non-voters become “invisible” to elected officials. 

“If you vote and your candidate doesn’t win, you’re at least on the record as somebody who’s holding these elected officials accountable,” Thomas said. “If you do not vote, it means you are accepting the status quo because you are yielding your voice to somebody else.”

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