At Washington University in St. Louis (WashU), the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement is responsible for coordinating voter registration, democratic engagement, and voter turnout efforts for the entire university. The mission of the Gephardt Institute is to foster a vibrant culture of civic engagement throughout Washington University, realized by engaged citizens, scholarship, and partnerships that advance the collective good. Our vision is one of civic health, where every person takes responsibility to actively engage in the life and health of their communities. Through a newly launched Engage Democracy Initiative, we will continue to champion educating students about processes and the civic skills needed to participate in a thriving democracy.
On campus, our PULSE survey data revealed that WashU students are increasingly engaged in their communities through direct service and civic participation. In 2017, 39 percent of WashU students reported they participated, or were planning to participate, in politics beyond voting, an increase from 25 percent in 2013. While hosting the second presidential debate in the fall of 2016 likely played a role in this increased interest, we have an excellent opportunity to build upon civic learning and engagement. We will create new pathways for students—to the midterm elections and beyond—under the umbrella of Engage Democracy and, in turn, make improvements in voter registration and turnout rates amongst students.
Who is involved
WashU’s action plan for the midterm elections was coordinated using a framework that consisted of three guiding principles: 1) It is important for students to learn both the process of political participation and democratic engagement. This is not about voting in a single election; It’s about creating an identity of being an engaged citizen over a lifetime; 2) We integrate a Politics 365 approach, as described by Nancy Thomas at the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education, that establishes a campus culture that fosters civic discourse and dialogue across difference that extends beyond presidential elections; 3) We are nonpartisan and believe political engagement can be inclusive of all beliefs.
Through the Gephardt Institute’s Engage Democracy Initiative, launching this August, we will guide WashU’s work related to civic and community engagement as well as voter registration, engagement, and turnout. The Engage Democracy Team is spearheaded by four professional staff members from the Gephardt Institute, including a full-time Voter Engagement Fellow dedicated to coordinating this component of our democratic engagement efforts.
Part of the initiative includes hiring a senior public policy fellow. Tom Irwin, who has been involved in politics in both Missouri and Massachusetts for several decades, will be teaching civic engagement courses and will be available as a speaker and mentor for interested classes, student groups, and individuals.
Another component of Engage Democracy is coordinating WashU Votes, a campus initiative started in 2016, that is comprised of student volunteers who are trained in ways to assist students registering using wustl.turbovote.org. WashU has found peer-to-peer engagement to be the most successful method of garnering student interest, so WashU Votes volunteers will be the main volunteers staffing various voter engagement efforts.
The plan was created with input from the Voter Engagement Steering Committee, which is comprised of more than 120 partners from across campus. The group meets quarterly to receive engagement plans and reports created by the Gephardt Institute, find opportunities for collaboration, give feedback, and monitor progress. Faculty, staff, undergraduate and graduate students are all represented.
With input from Gephardt Institute professional staff and the Voter Engagement Steering Committee, WashU set measurable and achievable goals based on the data received about past performance from the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE). Additionally, data received from the local board of elections about students who register with a university address and vote locally was used to determine best practices and inform strategy for 2018 and 2020.
WashU is aiming to increase the registration rate of students from 63.2 percent in 2014 to 68 percent in the 2018 midterm elections, with a long-term goal of increasing the total eligible registration from the 79.6 percent rate in 2016 to 84 percent by the next presidential election. By providing tablets at voter registration drives and tabling at events, as well as posting the TurboVote link in all communications, the voter engagement team hopes to complete at least 50 percent of student registrations using the TurboVote platform.
The Engage Democracy team analyzed more specific trends seen in the data provided by NSLVE to target efforts toward specific populations with lower democratic engagement rates. For example, lower registration rates amongst graduate students led WashU to reach out to campus partners and student leaders on the medical school campus to help organize registration drives during orientation programming and National Voter Registration Day in areas more convenient to those students.
We also used qualitative data to assist in planning for midterm election events. After the success of an absentee ballot party held in 2016, WashU will be replicating the event this fall at the end of October when we can both support students navigating voting absentee and ensure they will return their ballots in time to be counted for midterm elections. Additionally, we will host smaller, satellite events in areas on campus that are more accessible to different student populations.
The Gephardt Institute’s voter engagement efforts are organized into three main phases, starting with voter registration and WashU Votes engagement. This phase lasts until the Missouri voter registration deadline in October, at which point our efforts pivot to voter education. The last phase will consist of get out the vote efforts beginning in late October and data analysis following the election.
To start the year off strong, WashU Votes and the Gephardt Institute are excited to participate in more than 20 events during orientation programming for undergraduate and graduate students. Armed with tablets on loan from Student Technology Services, they will help students register as voters and recruit new volunteers. The Gephardt Institute has also recently updated its website to provide a centralized location for the TurboVote link, nonpartisan resources, and information about upcoming events and opportunities to get involved. Lastly, we have had success embedding TurboVote permanently into Webstac, the online website all students use to register for classes and update their student contact information.
Through September, WashU will continue to encourage students to register as voters in time for Election Day with events surrounding Constitution Day and National Voter Registration Day. Registration drives will be expanded from just one on National Voter Registration Day into a week of activities occurring in multiple locations. Consistent communication will include a first day of classes welcome back message, an all-school email from the chancellor, messages from deans and faculty members, and a strong social media presence.
The 2018 midterm elections will be the second time WashU will host a polling place on campus. The convenience of this location and the celebration the Gephardt Institute will host nearby the polling place on Election Day will be used to help increase voter turnout. Additionally, as part of an Election Day and Beyond effort, WashU will host election debrief and educational events to analyze the effect of the election results.
Through all of these efforts, the Gephardt Institute hopes to increase democratic engagement on WashU’s campus, and set the university up for even greater success in 2020. We look forward to continuing to work with TurboVote in these efforts, as the platform allows us to reach students in ways that are most convenient for them.