Centralizing civic efforts
Just as Stetson University became a TurboVote partner in preparation for the 2012 presidential election, associate director of community engagement Kevin Winchell began his project of centralizing the university’s efforts around voter registration, education, and turnout. Having noticed that a lack of communication among student groups working on political participation was resulting in redundancies in programming and an inefficient use of resources, Kevin built a coalition of student and faculty organizations interested in coordinating their voter engagement efforts. The coalition includes the Student Government Association, College Republicans, College Democrats, Stetson Votes, and the Stetson Department of Political Science.
Since then, Stetson’s voter engagement team has benefited from having centralized leadership to coordinate efforts and develop effective strategies across student groups. Stetson’s successful model involves all organizations working from a shared database, which includes a list of all enrolled students, cross-referenced with both the university’s student records and public voter files. This allows for contact and demographic information, academic interests, party affiliation, and voter registration status to help target students with an individualized message. To overcome the challenge of limited resources and the inability to hire full-time employees, Stetson offers internships and leadership positions to students interested in organizing civic engagement programming. Beyond a few key faculty and student leaders, however, members of the student organizations involved in voter engagement plan and carry out their own campaigns and events.
Stetson employs several effective online and on-the-ground strategies that catch the attention of large numbers of students and offer them the immediate option of registering to vote. Some strategies to create these bottlenecks include adding a daily, recurring event to the university’s online calendar that reminds students to register to vote and links to Stetson’s TurboVote partner site, sending campus-wide emails, and offering a one-stop, online location where students can find all voter registration, education, and engagement information. In each of these cases, Stetson utilizes TurboVote’s unique ability as an online platform to reach many more students than would otherwise be possible.
Stetson also uses TurboVote to make more efficient traditional, on-the-ground bottlenecks, such as tabling in high-traffic areas. During tabling events, laptops are provided for students to sign up with TurboVote, and afterwards, student groups use the Admin Console to identify which stage in the registration process each user reached. Students can then update the centralized Stetson voter database, allowing student leaders to provide peers with additional individualized support throughout the process.
Reaching still-unregistered students
After the majority of students have been reached with these bottleneck strategies, there are always some who are still not registered to vote. Stetson’s voter engagement team has found that the most effective way to get these students registered is through person-to-person contact, and conversations among friends and peers about the importance of civic engagement. Having TurboVote as an online tool, however, makes it possible for these conversations at Stetson to occur not only during canvassing events in residence halls or phone calling sessions, but also over text message and social media, when a link to the TurboVote website can make all the difference in getting a student registered.
Celebrating new citizens
A particularly memorable and meaningful activity at Stetson is its annual naturalization ceremony, during which 50 to 75 new citizens are naturalized. It is a time when students and families reflect on what it means to participate in our democracy. For many, the ceremony is a powerful experience. Each year Kevin dresses as Uncle Sam, takes pictures with students and their families and helps new citizens get registered to vote.
Plans for the future
Stetson looks forward to continuing to expand its role in the civic life of its students and serve as a model for universities across the country. This year, for the first time, Stetson is providing incoming students with printed, pre-filled voter registration forms during orientation, so new students only need sign and hand in their forms in order to get registered to vote. Leaders on campus are also increasing communication with professors and looking for ways to integrate civic education into coursework more systemically.
By building a voter engagement coalition with some centralized leadership, catching unregistered students through the use of bottlenecks, and reminding its community of the power of civic engagement by hosting events like naturalization ceremonies, Stetson University is demonstrating that higher education institutions have a powerful role to play in changing the way we understand and engage with our democracy.