By Erin Byrnes
As the Lead for Democratic Engagement for the Ginsberg Center at the University of Michigan, Erin Byrnes oversees the Big Ten Voting Challenge and works in partnership with Turn up Turnout, which Alton Worthington coordinates, to provide student voter registration opportunities across campus.
The votes of young people have the potential to impact every election at every level across the United States. At the University of Michigan (UM), we recognize the significance of our students’ voices and votes, and launched the Big Ten Voting Challenge in September of 2017 to promote voter registration and turnout. The Challenge is a nonpartisan, collaborative effort among the president’s office, Ginsberg Center and Turn up Turnout. The UM-Ann Arbor campus’ goal is to increase turnout by a minimum of 200 percent from 2014, when we saw a student voting rate of 14 percent. Since the start of the Challenge, we’ve signed up nearly 6,000 students for TurboVote.
The University of Michigan focuses on weaving student voter registration into the fabric of campus culture. TurboVote has served as a key tool in this process, assisting UM students in getting registered, requesting absentee ballots and receiving Election Day reminders. Staff dedicated solely to student voter registration is a relatively new focus on campus. As with any new undertaking, the UM team dedicated to the work of civic participation has learned, through a mix of success and challenges, how to best reach students and engage them in the democratic process.
High-traffic digital platforms have been incredibly successful, providing a low-input- high-output model. Wolverine Access, a central platform for students, has both a voter registration tile on the landing page and links to TurboVote in two additional spaces. The university has seen more than 2,500 TurboVote sign-ups through Wolverine Access alone, and our team also utilizes digital signage across campus as well as the Canvas (formerly Course Tools) site used by students and faculty.
In-person events have also yielded positive results, particularly the Ginsberg Center’s partnership with the Office of New Student Programs. Since the summer of 2017, both units have collaborated to provide peer-to-peer voter registration at new and transfer student orientation events which bring in thousands of students. The importance of voter registration at a required, initial event cannot be overstated as it drives home the message that Victors Vote! Being engaged in the democratic process and getting out to vote are both expectations for UM students, and impressing those expectations begins on their very first day.
Another important part of our TurboVote engagement effort is on-campus events targeting specific departments or groups of students. We usually pair these events with incentives (read: food) provided by the sponsoring department. Our Bagels and Ballots events, where students can grab a cup of coffee and a bagel while signing up for TurboVote have yielded significant results on campus and significant attention off-campus. Chatting with students about Michigan-specific voting rules, applying for absentee ballots to vote at home, and the discussion on where to register often goes better with a snack in hand.
We would be unable to understand the effectiveness of these programs without the consistent use of the data tools TurboVote provides to partners. We use referral links and analysis of our signup data to track progress, assess success of events, and tweak our presentation and marketing efforts to yield maximum return. From these data, we know our Wolverine Access link is our most important tool. We also know which departments and units are making good progress, so we can check in on what strategies they have implemented and share those with others. Michigan is a large, decentralized campus, so keeping an eye on the numbers has been critical to keeping our momentum throughout the year and into the election season.
The final tool in our strategy, which would have been impossible without TurboVote data, has been a “90 Percent Pledge” taken by over 90 percent of our academic units on campus. The pledge asks student organizations, departments, schools, and colleges to get 90 percent (or more!) of their voting-eligible students signed up for TurboVote. Each unit gets a referral link to track progress towards that goal, and there is healthy competition within and across pledge-taking units. We are currently transitioning from the deployment to implementation phase on this project, but early results suggest that when students know there is a goal in mind and that their efforts will be noticed, they get signed up.
This election season, Michigan Wolverines are aiming for multiple targets: helping with the TurboVote “Ace the Midterms” effort to sign up 100,000 students for TurboVote nationwide, hitting our internal 90 percent targets and winning the Big Ten Voting Challenge. We wouldn’t be able to reach these goals, or be certain of our progress towards them, without the hard work of our on-campus partners and our partners beyond Ann Arbor, including TurboVote.