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Institutionalization: Making the Right to Vote Accessible for All Students

Civic Engagement Orientation, Transition and Retention Mid-Level New Professional Senior Level VP for Student Affairs
September 28, 2020 Steven Adelson

It was the Summer of 2012 and I had just finished creating my class schedule at new student orientation for my first semester in college. Before leaving, there was a table with a stack of blank voter registration applications and some pens. I wasn’t really sure what to do because there was nobody around to help me, so I did my best to complete the application and left it on the table with the other completed applications.

A few months later was the Presidential Election. Like many students, I waited on line for several hours to cast my first ballot ever. I finally got to the poll worker at the check in table who asked me for my name. After several minutes and much searching, they informed me that I was not registered to vote.

I was heartbroken, confused and, most importantly, left without casting my ballot. My voice was not heard in that election.

Since then, from my time as a student to now being a campus voter engagement coordinator, I have been committed to sharing an important message: Colleges and universities need to institutionalize the right to vote for all students.

Voting is not easy in the United States, especially for most college students. 2 out of every 3 college students will unsuccessfully register to vote for the first time on their own. There are so many factors, like moving frequently, that affect college students more than anyone else. We have made significant progress to increase student voting, but we still have a lot of work to do.

Here are some of my recommendations as a campus voter engagement coordinator to make voting accessible for all students:

Integrate Voter Registration into Bottlenecks

How do you transition your students to your institution? It could be an orientation day or week, a semester-long seminar, a meeting with an academic advisor, or something in between. Whatever your institution’s methods are, integrate voter registration into these formal, bottleneck experiences.

Bottlenecks, or a controlled way in which things (in this case, students) move, are really effective ways to engage as many students as possible while maximizing your resources. It will reduce the amount of time you need to dedicate to voter registration drives and other registration efforts throughout the rest of the year. Instead, you can focus your energy on education, mobilization, and turnout of voters.

Once you identify all of the ways in which students transition to your institution, connect with the people who lead these efforts and get to work together thinking about how to effectively integrate voter registration as a dedicated part of these experiences. And within four to six years, every single student will have had an opportunity to learn about voter registration no matter where the universe takes them from there. How great is that?

There are so many great examples of how institutions have effectively institutionalized voter registration, so check them out!

Have Trained Students Lead the Way

Peer to peer voter engagement is incredibly powerful and increases the likelihood that someone will participate in your efforts. I am only in my mid twenties, but I can already tell the difference between conducting voter registration as a staff member compared to when I was a student.

Whether as a volunteer, part of a course, or paid employee, recruit and train students to lead voter registration for their peers. There are definitely students at your institution who would be passionate about voter engagement if offered a leadership opportunity to facilitate these efforts. Empower your students with all of the information they need to successfully guide other students through the registration process, especially for the states where students most commonly come to your institution from. They should be able to provide step-by-step instruction and be aware of frequently asked questions. They should be aware of important upcoming deadlines for registration and voting in general.

Your students should also be prepared to face a lot of rejection. This is a hard truth to accept. We need to be persistent, resilient and constantly remind ourselves about the importance of the work we are doing and the impact we are making… one student at a time. Who knows, maybe that student who rejected you for the tenth time will change their mind on your eleventh attempt. Yes, it does happen!

Not sure where to get started? Check out these training and recruitment tools, as well as these voter registration facilitation tools!

Support 50+ State Voter Registration

Some students don’t know where they want to be registered to vote. Other students might have a strong connection to their community and know that is where they want to make their voice heard. Either way, you want to be ready to support student voter registration everywhere and anywhere.

But how are you going to equip yourself and your students with information about voting laws in all 50 U.S. States, the District of Columbia, and all U.S. Territories? The tools already exist, so don’t stress out too much! Partner organizations like Campus Vote Project provide comprehensive voter guides based on where you want to register to vote. While you should always check and verify information with elections websites and sources, these are among the most reliable tools available.

These tools are also helpful to identify the extent to which you can support student voting based on the state where they want to register to vote. Some states require that you be trained or deputized in order to provide voter registration support, so be sure to do your research beforehand!

While there might be other factors to consider, including your institution landscape and the state in which you are situated, I hope these three recommendations are helpful to get you started on your journey to institutionalizing and making voter registration accessible for all students. There are so many resources and tools available created by campuses, for campuses. Here are some more for you to check out. Good luck and wishing you all the best!


About the Author

Steven Adelson (he/him, they/them) is the Coordinator of the Center for Civic Justice at Stony Brook University. Steven provides leadership for the University’s nationally recognized voter engagement program, which includes a commitment to offering all 26,000+ students an opportunity to successfully register to vote before their first day of classes.