The LEAP Challenge Blog

Chad Anderson
Editor and Writer

Teach the Vote: Student Learning and Voter Engagement

Earlier this summer the US Supreme Court excised Section 5, a major piece of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that sets up the framework for the act's provision of equitable voting practices in certain areas of the country that have had historically unfair and discriminatory procedures regulating voting. The controversial decision is accompanied by a whole suite of disheartening state legislation involving voting districting, registration, and eligibility that seems to undercut the crucial advances in voting rights laws of the last fifty years. One local example is Virginia's recent law requiring third-party individuals and groups to undergo state-run training before they can disperse voter registration forms or assist individuals in the process. While laws such this one may seem like a precautionary measure for making voting registration fairer and smoother, they also serve as a hurdle for community groups and student organizations attempting to help community members register to vote. And according to a report by the Brenner Center for Justice, the populations most likely to be registered by those grassroots efforts are people of color and lower-income Americans.

Another troubling example of states limiting students' voting rights is North Carolina's new legislation prohibiting students from using campus IDs at the polls. For those of us in higher education, these stumbling blocks placed in the path to democratic participation raise questions about how we best engage students in the political process in light of broader social and political barriers. While voting is simply one element of civic engagement, it is foundational to democratic thinking and action.

Instilling the importance of civic engagement in students has long been a primary goal of a quality liberal education, but the current generation of students is particularly primed to tackle the big political and social questions of our times. In the opening plenary for The Democracy Commitment and American Democracy Project joint Annual Meeting last month, Denise Fairchild, President of Emerald Cities Collaborative, asserted that millennials (18–29 year olds) are America's most culturally diverse generation, that they embrace self-expression and transparency, and they are technologically savvy—all characteristics needed to re-envision a new, more just, more sustainable nation and globe. Furthermore, research from the Pew Center indicates that young people and people of color played a crucial role in recent presidential elections, which have led to historical milestones in such areas as gay rights and health care and increased Americans' awareness of the changing demographics of the United States. And yet, while millennials have the capacity to initiate change, educators often fail to equip them with the tools they need to take action.

Fairchild posited that education needs to be authentic and relevant to students' experiences of their world. Engaging students with voting is one method for accomplishing this, because voting compels students to think critically and to decide what issues and platforms really matter to them and how they must act in order for those issues to be addressed in a way that best reflects their vision for themselves, their communities, and their world. Participating institutions in AAC&U's Bridging Cultures project offer some examples of how to engage students in the voting process.

At Georgia Perimeter College–Clarkston, Shyam K. Sriram, instructor of political science, taught his students about voting and voter participation in his course, and then assigned them "language teams." Each team was tasked with developing a video that encouraged others to vote in a different language. Not only did students learn about the voting process, they engaged in teamwork and received hands-on training in videography, scriptwriting, iMovie, and Flip cameras. Despite a compressed timeline to meet the October 9 voter registration deadline, student teams—each with a native speaker of a particular language—filmed public service announcements in a variety of languages, including Amharic, French, Spanish, Swahili, and Vietnamese, among others. This assignment reached beyond a single classroom and asked students to engage with multiple skills and disciplines and with their fellow students and community members.

While innovative, high-impact assignments and courses like the one above can certainly be effective, finding ways to institutionalize a particular practice across the entire curriculum or cocurriculum expands the scope and strengthens the sustainability of that practice. Last fall, Mount Wachusett Community College aimed to raise awareness of political issues that affected their students and increase voter turnout by holding a voter registration drive on Constitution Day (September 17). The event was cosponsored by the Center for Civic Learning & Community Engagement and the Student Government Association (SGA). Mount Wachusett's Student Life office coordinated a game show that engaged student participants with questions on the Constitution, voting history, and democratic practice. Students competed in small groups, and the teams that reached the last round sent one team member to a Jeopardy-style platform to answer final questions. The winning group was awarded small prizes. Over 175 students participated in the activity.

The aforementioned activities on these campuses are interdisciplinary, high-impact practices that advance learning outcomes in all four categories of AAC&U's LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes. Students are more likely to engage when civic learning and voter participation are deeply embedded into the curriculum or cocurriculum. The AAC&U publication A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy's Future calls for a "civic ethos" for "governing campus life," an ethos that "infus[es]…democratic values into the customs and habits of everyday practices, structures, and interactions" of an institution. A civic-minded institution would also consider civic literacy, civic inquiry, and civic action as priorities for students, faculty, administrators, and maybe most importantly, graduates.

One innovative method of creating civic ethos is partnering with organizations such as TurboVote, an organization that helps schools institutionalize voter registration for students, making it easy for them to register and stay informed about local and national elections and thus more likely to participate in the democratic process. In locations that face barriers to voting and registration—like Virginia, North Carolina, and before them Florida—such a partnership may prove invaluable to creating a civic ethos and sustaining students' engagement. As demonstrated with the Georgia Perimeter example above, engaging students with voting allows them to practice a variety of other skills and competencies frequently found in institutional missions. In an e-mail exchange, Sam Novey, director of partnerships at TurboVote, wrote "… the kind of pervasive voter engagement we all want to see will not happen until institutional leaders have an effective framework to talk about voter engagement as a driver of learning outcomes rather than a driver of political outcomes." Having conversations at all levels and in all areas of campus—not just in political science classrooms or civic engagement centers— about an institution's role in educating students in voting rights, history, and processes can lead to robust learning experiences; a more active, better informed citizenry; and a healthier democracy.

In a recent blog post for the Knight Foundation, Sam Novey and Marie-Fatima Hyacinthe quote Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University: "Once voting becomes easy and turnout rises, local governments and politicians should start paying more attention to student voters … And that would make the environment more educational—richer in debate, outreach, and competition of ideas." When it comes to our education and our democracy, what more could we want from our students, from our campuses, from ourselves?