A student holding a flag at the College of the Canyons
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Voting 101

Interdisciplinary engagement in the COVID-19 election

By Ben Dedman

October 21, 2020

On many college campuses, election engagement initiatives look pretty similar: a few people holding clipboards or sitting behind a table, hoping that students walk up and register to vote.

Since the 1998 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, colleges and universities have been required to make these kinds of “good faith” efforts to inform and engage students in voter registration. But in a socially distanced election, simple, in-person outreach is not only impossible; it is also a missed opportunity to integrate student activism, experiential learning, and the broad skills developed through a liberal education.

“We often see students on campuses being treated like people to be organized and not people that can be organizers,” says Allison Rank, associate professor of political science at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Oswego. “I think we fail to use voter engagement on campuses to teach the kinds of skills that grassroots organizing can be used to teach, such as real-time troubleshooting, how to run a meeting, or how to track and assess your progress toward a goal.”

Below, faculty from three colleges and universities—College of the Canyons, SUNY Oswego, and The New School—describe their interdisciplinary efforts to engage students in the 2020 election.

Building an Engaged Network at College of the Canyons

At College of the Canyons (COC), a community college in north Los Angeles County, “the idea of having an ongoing voter engagement plan, even having any sort of real long-term strategy, had not fully existed” until about five years ago, says Patty Robinson, faculty director of civic and community engagement initiatives.

For the past few election cycles, Robinson has used data from the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement to keep an eye on student voting patterns. Part of the problem with getting COC students engaged was that voting was not very visible, with the campus polling location open only on Election Day and “hidden in a small hallway,” Robinson says.

This year, COC partnered with the Los Angeles County registrar’s office as part of a new initiative to create vote centers across the county. Before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the campus, COC participated in a mock election, with dozens of new voting machines (similar to tablet computers) set up in the campus cafeteria. The campus hosts both a drop box to collect mail-in ballots and an official voting center, which was open for eleven days of in-person voting during the 2020 primaries and is open again for the general election.

“We had never had anything like this on campus before,” Robinson says.

Because wider election engagement can’t be done in-person during the pandemic, Robinson is working with a team of twenty-five students to engage their peers digitally and break down apathy and misinformation.

“Many students are embarrassed to admit they don’t know how to vote,” Robinson says. But even experienced voters can have trouble navigating the many changes to California’s voting process. Robinson and her students have been drawing on their network of more than 2,000 students, staff, faculty, and community partners, to educate people and send reminders to people on and off campus about registering, requesting ballots, and casting their votes.

“Our faculty are fantastic, and they are the voices that can really help disseminate that information to our students,” Robinson says.

Students have also partnered with several community initiatives. Students collected photos and stories from COC students for Deborah Aschheim’s “365 Days of Voters” project, a “visual diary” of the election. Robinson and community members have also founded a Santa Clarita chapter of the League of Women Voters, and a group of students is working with the Bridge to Home homeless shelter to help its residents register to vote. A new student organization, Engage the Vote, is hosting virtual events including meet and greets with local candidates, a forum with an election official on how to vote or become a volunteer election worker, and a discussion of the several propositions on California’s ballot.

In 2019, COC’s Center for Civic Engagement worked with the nonprofit A Band of Voters to lobby the California Assembly to pass the Student Civic and Voter Empowerment Act, which provides colleges and universities with resources to designate a campus voting engagement coordinator, develop action plans, disseminate information about voting, and organize on-campus events.

Engaging students through these kinds of efforts is critical for embracing community colleges’ role as “democracy’s colleges,” Robinson says. California community colleges enroll more than two million diverse students—many of whom are Generation Z—across 116 campuses.

“They may not always be passionate about a candidate, and they’re not necessarily passionate about our political system, but they’re passionate about making a difference,” Robinson says. “We’ve got to get students to understand, even in the traditional democratic system, that their voices do count.”

Bringing Election Engagement into the Curriculum at SUNY Oswego

While many campuses house their voter engagement initiatives in a campus center or student organizations, Vote Oswego is embedded within SUNY Oswego’s curriculum.

Since 2016, Rank has used her grassroots organizing course to engage students across campus in voter registration and education. In 2018 and again this year, her students have partnered with another course, Designing with and for Community, taught by Rebecca Mushtare, associate professor of web design and multimedia.

The two courses share the same meeting time, and students work together virtually during the first weeks of the semester to strategize and plan a voter engagement campaign from different disciplinary perspectives. While the political science students dive into scholarly literature about grassroots organizing and election strategy, the graphic design students bring expertise about user-centered design and storytelling. By working together to plan and assess get-out-the-vote initiatives, students learn the business side of running a grassroots campaign, which includes working with real budgets, following brand guidelines, and assessing effectiveness.

“What both classes are collaborating on is the design of an experience and thinking through all moments of that experience from start to finish,” Mushtare says.

voteillustration_instagram2020 (2).png
A get out the vote image by Caroline Mooney,
a junior in the BFA in Graphic Design
program at SUNY Oswego.

Since the political science students tend to already be politically engaged, it can be difficult for them to create content that connects with less-engaged students. The design students act as a valuable sounding board to ensure strategies will appeal to audiences that are often overlooked in voting initiatives. Using campus demographic data, students create “personas”—imagined audience members—that help them “keep people who are different from them in mind,” Mushtare says. “Our personas are racially diverse, they live in different kinds of environments (rural and urban), have different majors, and include considerations about accessibility.”

In the past, students’ grassroots efforts often focused on hosting large events to register several hundred students at one time. But with large gatherings canceled during the pandemic, students have focused on relational organizing, networking, and running education programs. They have networked with faculty, asking them to make announcements in classes. They have also partnered with RAs to host virtual events in residence halls, including an online Kahoot! game that breaks down the voting process, voter education “Jeopardy!,” and couch parties that prod students to reach out to friends to engage in the election. In a similar initiative, students across campus have committed to be “responsible” for ten friends, urging them to register, request an absentee ballots, and make a concrete plan to cast their vote.

“You’re the best messenger for your own friends,” Rank says.

As the campaign gains momentum, more courses across the curriculum are getting involved. A screenwriting course in the English Department partnered with a cinematography class to write, produce, and edit nineteen PSAs on voting, which were compiled in a competitive film festival and used to drum up excitement around voter registration.

“It’s very hard for students to understand that elections are collective activities,” Rank says. “We try to build a sense of community around the act of voting.”

While Vote Oswego is strictly nonpartisan, “students will take the skills they’re learning with them into whatever work they want to do after this. Whether that’s working in political campaigns or improving their kid’s school through the PTA, they’ll be able to assess a problem and speak their mind.”

Discussing the Census, Gerrymandering, and Mathematical Modeling at The New School

At The New School, a private university in New York, mathematics professors Jennifer Wilson and Anne Yust have partnered with two graduate teaching assistants to teach a general education course, (Un)Fair Representation: Gerrymandering and the Political Process, that explores math problems connected to civic engagement.

“One of the overarching themes of the course is, What does it mean to have fair representation?” Wilson says. “This is a question you can ask politically, philosophically, mathematically, and legally.”

Many students in the class are already politically engaged, having voted in previous elections, volunteered at polling locations, worked with a political campaign, or worked on the Census.

“We don’t have an apathy problem at The New School,” Wilson says. “We have a reputation for being very involved in civic engagement projects, so students don’t need to be convinced about why voting matters. But we do have a lot of students who have a certain amount of cynicism about the efficacy of their vote for a lot of different reasons.”

In early weeks of the fall semester course, students study apportionment, a math principle that focuses on dividing groups proportionately into whole numbers. After the 2020 Census is finished, results will be used to redistribute the 435 members of the US House of Representatives across the states based on population. Using simple division isn’t possible, since that wouldn’t result in whole numbers.

“You have to do a certain amount of fudging,” Wilson says. “Some methods tend to be biased in favor of large states, and some more biased in favor of small states. Though we have qualitative ideas about fair representation, working out the details is a quantitative problem.”

The course also explores how legislative districts within states are gerrymandered, or drawn in ways that give candidates in certain political parties an unfair advantage. Compactness can be used as a criterion to evaluate whether legislative districts are carved into strange shapes. Students explore mathematical definitions of compactness and assess the effectiveness of these measures for real districts, contending with complications—including geographic features such as coastlines—that make compactness difficult to achieve.

Students also try their hand at detecting gerrymandering through outlier analysis. In this method, researchers create several district maps and run simulations to estimate how many people from each party win congressional seats based on the maps. These results are compiled and compared to the expected partisan split within the current district map.

“If it seems like the current map is an outlier in that comparison, it’s an indication that maybe gerrymandering has happened,” Wilson says. “It helps students understand the role that technology plays in both creating the maps and in analyzing them.”

Building on these mathematical exercises, the course uses materials developed by Project Pericles, a consortium of thirty US colleges and universities that works to incorporate civic engagement in curricula. In 2018, Project Pericles partnered with the Students Learn Students Vote Coalition and the Eugene M. Lang Foundation to create three Periclean Voting Modules focused on what deliberative dialogue is, how to vote, and why voting matters.

“Connecting course content with a relevant civic issue is a high-impact practice and can help students not only understand academic content more but also be more civically engaged and aware of an issue,” says Arielle del Rosario, assistant director at Project Pericles. “Faculty and students are finding ways to make a difference, no matter what discipline they’re part of, no matter what their political stance is.”

To learn about voting requirements in their home states, New School students used an interactive map that provides up-to-date information on voting processes and deadlines. Though the election is drawing near, del Rosario says that it’s not too late for faculty to get their students engaged. One easy, important strategy is to help students make a concrete, step-by-step plan of how they will vote.

“Behavioral research does suggest that if students have an actual plan of how they’re going to vote, they are more likely to do it,” del Rosario says.

Drawing from Project Pericles’s modules, two New School graduate teaching assistants are facilitating student discussions about whether their votes count and whether they count more or less than votes from people in other parts of the country.

“Pairing the Pericles material with the mathematical foundation of our course truly pushed students to dive into the intricacies of the social issues they care about and how these issues are perpetuated by a system created to inherently disenfranchise marginalized individuals,” says Kelsie Wilkins, graduate teaching assistant leading discussions on the voting rights of Indigenous peoples and incarcerated individuals, as well as “movements that discourage people of color from voting.”

Such open-ended discussions can engage students who may be ineligible to vote because of their age, citizenship status, or involvement with the criminal justice system. International students in the course are encouraged to compare US election processes with those in their home countries.

“How can students make a difference? Voting is part of it,” del Rosario says. “But you can also write a letter to an elected official, or you can volunteer for a campaign. Those are inclusive activities that frame voting within a larger perspective of civic engagement.”


  • Ben Dedman

    Ben Dedman is a writer and staff editor at AAC&U.