Civic engagement is at the core of the university’s mission. Yet, despite an OSU student voter turnout of 59 percent in the 2016 general election, only 14.5 percent of Buckeyes voted in the last midterm election cycle. Historically, it’s not all that surprising to hear of young people voting at lower rates; and decreases in voting rates are especially pronounced in non-presidential elections. But how do we close the gap and increase student voter turnout? That’s where OSU Votes comes in.
OSU Votes is a student-led, nonpartisan organization that encourages student civic engagement at the university. OSU Votes ambassadors make voting easy for students—coordinating registration, answering frequently asked questions, and even busing students to the board of elections to vote early. In 2018, OSU Votes is also leading campus efforts in the Big Ten Voting Challenge—a friendly competition across the conference to see which school has the highest percentage of student voters in the fall. Over the past ten months, we’ve done a lot of planning and learned many valuable lessons. Here are just a few:
Make a big school feel small
One of the first things people notice when they step onto the Ohio State campus is that it’s a big place. With more than 66,000 students, 33,000 faculty/staff, five regional campuses, and only 24 OSU Votes ambassadors, the scale of Buckeye Nation can feel overwhelming. In turn, one of our first goals was building a campus coalition to help us get the word out.
Beginning in January 2018, we identified contacts in the Office of the President, Government Affairs, Student Life, student governments, and several academic colleges. We named this group of 12 to 18 people our core team. After meeting with core team members to outline the terms of the Big Ten Challenge and conduct initial brainstorming, we picked up the phone and called communication directors in colleges and departments across campus. We also identified contacts on each of Ohio State’s five regional campuses. Finding 10 to 15 minutes to talk, our big question was, “What are the best ways to share information with your students?” We compiled their answers into a master spreadsheet and created a shared folder containing draft newsletters, tweets, press releases, creative assets, and a calendar outlining messages throughout the fall. The personal connections we’ve made will be invaluable in coordinating efforts this coming semester.
Details, details, details
Drafting and following a detailed action plan has been another element in our strategy. With more than 50 campus partners, a written plan helps everyone stay on the same page. Some of the most helpful elements in our action plan include month-by-month guidelines for meetings, deadlines to order marketing materials, dates of popular campus events where we can promote OSU Votes, and relevant Ohio voter deadlines. For fall communications, we outlined a schedule that frames daily messages coming from all campus partners on social media (e.g., One week until the Ohio voter registration deadline!), and shared that with our coalition. We’ve also pointed all campus partners toward the OSU TurboVote page as the primary online registration portal.
What happens on November 7?
Finally, as much as we’re focused on Election Day on November 6, it’s important to consider long-term plans. Prior to the 2016 general election, OSU Votes recruited a large group of trained ambassadors and built a similar coalition. But, after the election, we saw a significant decrease in student membership and could have done a better job continuing to engage campus and local partners. This year, we’re taking steps to prevent this from happening again. Officer positions more clearly outline responsibilities for the full school year. Workshops explain registration and voting, but also emphasize the broader importance of ongoing civic engagement. After the election, we’re planning to assess our 2018 plan through a “start/stop/keep” conversation with campus partners. After all, 2020 will be here before we know it, and we intend to capture the momentum we’ve gained to keep moving our efforts forward.
In closing, while the Big Ten Challenge has provided a fun platform to mobilize our efforts, our greatest competition this year has been with ourselves. Throughout conversations with OSU Votes ambassadors and campus partners, we’ve stressed our student turnout rate of 14.5 percent in 2014 as motivation to do better. This year, thanks to our action plan and support from TurboVote, we expect to hear many more students proclaim, “O - H - I - voted!”