In the spring of 2018, Stanford faculty, staff, and students met to discuss how to improve voter participation. They grappled with the fact that, according to NSLVE data, fewer than 16.7% of eligible voters at Stanford participated in the 2014 midterm election. They had no idea at the time, but that meeting would spark a campus-wide effort that mobilized hundreds of people from every corner of the university to help take Stanford from a school where less than one in five students voted in the 2014 midterm elections, to one that made 19 appearances on the TurboVote Leaderboard, our biweekly ranking of campus partner signups.
One of the people who contributed centrally to Stanford’s early meetings and to the campus-wide effort they would catalyze was Megan Swezy Fogarty, Deputy Executive Director of Stanford’s Haas Center for Public Service and staff advisor to Stanford in Government.
Campus-wide is on your side
Prior to 2018, various student groups and university offices, including the Haas Center, organized activities to promote voter registration, like distributing flyers and tabling during new student orientation. However, efforts were both limited and fragmented. This was no campus-wide project–yet.
That change began over the summer. First, the Haas Center branded all voter engagement activities under a new StanfordVotes initiative, replacing the previous disjointed approach. Fogarty revealed that though it seemed simple, this branding strategy established much stronger campus-wide buy-in. Second, history professors Allyson Hobbs and Estelle Freedman came forward and, among other things, became instrumental advocates for voter engagement among faculty and university leadership, whose buy-in was critical. Finally, StanfordVotes got a website: stanfordvotes.org. In addition to prominently featuring Stanford’s TurboVote URL, the site housed information about nonpartisan voter education resources, courses relevant to civic learning, lists of Stanford alum running for office in the 2018 midterms, a calendar of voter engagement events all over campus, and more.
Aiding the strategy of building a campus-wide coalition was the fact that three years earlier, in 2015, the Haas Center had established Cardinal Service, a program that pulled together numerous organizations and academic departments to provide and promote service opportunities. That network of civic-minded players throughout the university proved instrumental in laying the foundation for the burgeoning StanfordVotes coalition.
What can I do?
After the Haas Center began publicizing StanfordVotes and offering opportunities to get involved, Fogarty remarked that she was amazed with the tsunami of support that rolled in. Through the StanfordVotes website, people could sign a pledge to vote and volunteer to help others vote in whatever capacity they could, and hundreds did. One group that played a particularly instrumental role was Stanford in Government (SIG), a nonpartisan student organization that facilitates engagement with public policy. Their existing mission made them a natural centerpiece of the grassroots, student-led side of the initiative. An especially notable contribution of theirs was the establishment of the Civic Engagement Volunteer (CEV) program. Students who signed up to be CEVs would act as StanfordVotes advocates within student organizations, teams, or even residence halls.
The initiative also had many other supporters. Faculty wrote letters to the Stanford Daily newspaper and to university leadership advocating for voter participation efforts. Dining hall staff offered to host a voting night where students would receive stickers and the opportunity to register while they had dinner. Gym managers featured StanfordVotes graphics on screens throughout gym facilities so exercise enthusiasts would receive constant reminders to cast a ballot while they worked out. StanfordVotes students even threw a “Party at the Post Office” event, complete with stamps, envelopes, absentee ballots, and In-N-Out Burger, where staff who also happened to be licensed notary publics volunteered to notarize ballots for students whose states required it.
Fogarty remarked that at every turn, it seemed someone would ask, “What can I do?” She continued that, “It all [stemmed] from that campus momentum.” StanfordVotes truly became by and for the entire university.
Quantity and quality
Fogarty and the StanfordVotes team also realized that true success did not just mean maximizing the number of people who registered and turned out to the polls. It also meant doing everything in their power to ensure that those people were as prepared as possible to make informed decisions. She explained that the team did not want voters to walk into a polling booth and simply check a few boxes, but “really think about who they’re voting for, what they’re voting for, and why.”
To that end, voter education also became a central component of the StanfordVotes Campaign. Stanford Libraries created a list of nonpartisan voter information resources and hosted Read Your Ballot events, along with the Women’s Community Center, to help answer questions students had, helping them overcome any obstacles to voting they faced.
Professor Allyson Hobbs also worked with Stanford in Government to facilitate an event in which a panel of faculty in disciplines ranging from civil rights law to economics, spoke about the importance of voting from the perspective of their respective disciplines. Professor Bruce Cain taught a political science course called “The 2018 Midterm Election: Making Your Voice Heard” which, in addition to bringing in guest speakers from both sides of the aisle to speak about election dynamics, required students to volunteer either with a campaign or with voter engagement efforts. Several of the CEVs that Stanford in Government recruited were drawn both to and from this course.
TurboVote to the rescue
The patchwork of federal, state, and local voting rules and regulations proved especially challenging to Stanford, which counts among its students residents of all 50 states and D.C. Fogarty explained that, “If we were just sitting here with fifty states’ registration forms, trying to do this on our own, [we] would never have done this.” She added that, “The TurboVote system has really been key to the infrastructure to make this happen.” Having a tool that automatically tracks deadlines and rules, and offers personalized resources to every student meant that the StanfordVotes team had the bandwidth to get creative about engagement instead of drowning in details.
Still, StanfordVotes plans to continue going above and beyond to meet state-specific needs. For the upcoming 2020 election, they plan to have Civic Engagement Volunteers for each state to serve as experts and motivators for students from different regions.
Some serious momentum
When asked if she expected from the beginning how sweeping the campus effort would become, Fogarty immediately and emphatically shook her head. She explained that once people got around a table and kept welcoming others, momentum built exponentially in a way that no one in the early grassroots meetings could have anticipated.
Silicon Valley’s uniquely innovative, entrepreneurial spirit also likely contributed. “It’s in the water here,” Fogarty remarked. The 16.7% midterm turnout from 2014 that shocked the campus into action no longer captures the depth of civic engagement at Stanford. In 2018 alone, Stanford generated 2,813 TurboVote signups, almost 40% of the undergraduate population! And while NSLVE data concretely outlining Stanford’s registration and voting figures for the 2018 midterms has not yet been released, at voting precincts on and around campus, turnout increased by around 20% compared to previous years.
What makes those numbers even more impressive is the fact that none of Stanford’s voter engagement efforts were an official part of anyone’s job. This included Fogarty, who assumed the mantle of being the leader of the StanfordVotes coalition functionally on a volunteer basis.
“It’s such rewarding work,” she explained. “And in the end, is there anything more important to our democracy?”
We don’t think there is.