Diversity and Democracy

Embracing Education for Democracy through the 2016 Election

Although all students will be affected by elections and the majority will be voters over the course of their lifetimes, most will encounter few learning opportunities intentionally designed to engage them even in major components of our democracy. Over the next year, college students will encounter information about the 2016 election from a wide variety of sources, both online and in person. And yet a lack of actionable information about the registration and voting process can still result in barriers to student voting. As educators, if we want students to actively participate in democratic processes such as elections, we must design learning opportunities that support this goal.

First, we need to dispel the myth that students know where to find the information they need. On Election Day 2012, 65 percent of college students aged eighteen to twenty-four (approximately 7 million students) were registered to vote, but hundreds of thousands of these students did not vote because of barriers that might have been addressed with better access to information. For example, 24.7 percent said they were out of town or away—suggesting the need for better access to information about absentee voting. Another 4 million students in this age group were not registered to vote, and hundreds of thousands of these students reported encountering barriers to registration that also might have been addressed with better access to information: for example, 7.5 percent said they did not know where or how to register, and 29.3 percent said they did not meet the registration deadline (author’s calculations from US Census Bureau 2012).

Higher education can embrace the 2016 election cycle as a way of educating students not only for voting, but also for broader participation in democracy. In fact, the federal Higher Education Act requires voter registration outreach by institutions that receive federal funds. Beginning with the steps outlined below, faculty, staff, and administrators can work together to make learning about voting and democracy a part of students’ college experiences and their future.

Begin to plan now. Begin planning early to develop election-related activities resulting in deep and thoughtful learning rather than transactional and superficial engagement that is so often associated with politics. Administrators can offer incentives such as minigrants to encourage faculty to incorporate elections- and voting-related topics into their courses, or they can offer faculty development workshops on effectively facilitating safe and balanced discussions.

Designate a staff or faculty lead and create a working group of faculty, staff, and students focused on building a strategy for crafting learning experiences focused on the election. This working group should leverage the potential of peer-to-peer learning, which can play a key role in how youth become politically engaged (CIRCLE 2012).

Provide basic information to students. Use existing communication channels, like the institution’s website and learning management system, to spread information about voting and election-related activities.

Build a relationship with your local election official. By understanding how the election official’s office works, educators can help students navigate registration procedures and avoid unexpected barriers to registration and voting (Tisch College, forthcoming). It’s important to clarify the registration and voting process before the election cycle becomes hectic.

Use existing resources and leverage local partners. For resources focused on voter registration, dialogue facilitation, and state-by-state information about voting rights, see http://go.tufts.edu/IDHE/.

Embrace the institution’s role in preparing students for life. Many institutions have mission and values statements related to engagement, problem solving, and diversity. We deny our students tools for acting on these values if we fail to show them how messy democracy can be. In fact, we underestimate their potential and ours as educators if we fail to embrace elections as opportunities for teaching and learning.


CIRCLE (Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement). 2012. “Once Again, Data Points to the Power of the Ask,” October 2. http://www.civicyouth.org/once-again-data-points-to-the-power-of-the-ask/.

Tisch College. Forthcoming. Democracy Matters: Addressing Non-Statutory Barriers to College Student Voting.

US Census Bureau. 2012. Current Population Survey, November 2012: Voting and Registration Supplement (machine-readable data file). Washington, DC: Bureau of the Census. http://thedataweb.rm.census.gov/ftp/cps_ftp.html.

Abby Kiesa is youth coordinator and researcher at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, Tufts University.

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