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ORGANIZING A CAMPUS TO VOTE--A CONCISE GUIDE
By Paul Rogat Loeb
Campus Compact's 2008 Campus Vote Initiative has some great voter engagement resources, offering schools all they need to conduct a nonpartisan effort to register their students to vote, help them think through relevant issues, and encourage them to volunteer in the campaigns, whatever their political beliefs. But how do people at any given campus start the process? And how do staffers or volunteers, like at a state Campus Compact, engage other schools? Here are suggestions for organizing your own and other campuses:
FOR YOUR OWN CAMPUS
Use existing organizing resources. Skim the 2008 Campus Vote Initiative's resources: It offers great examples, explanations, and templates so you won't have to reinvent the wheel. Use the concise CampusChecklist, which draws on both the Campus Vote Initiative and the complementary Your Vote, Your Voice to summarize key approaches and list key offices or departments to contact.
Integrate into current activities—then expand your efforts. Find out what's already happening on your campus. Plan so you can fill gaps and strengthen existing efforts. Build a team involving as many of the key offices and departments as possible, plus anyone else who wants to help. Most campuses have some logical starting places—the community service center, the office of student affairs. But anyone who is enthusiastic enough can help enormously, whatever their position. Some schools have full-scale voter engagement efforts launched by top administrators or senior professors. At others the initiative came from a campus librarian, counselor, secretary, or engaged student. You may not know all the key people at first, but one office can usually lead you to another. If you get enough energetic people involved, together you can engage all the necessary offices and departments, and follow up to ensure they're doing all they need to.
Help your school fulfill its legal mandate. Campus Compact's Campus Vote Initiative is based on tried and tested approaches, so engaging your school should be straightforward. If a key department or office resists, remember that postsecondary institutions are legally required to do their best to distribute voter registration forms to each degree- or certificate-seeking student they enroll, so you're helping them to take that mandate seriously. Most state registration deadlines are the week of October 6: See the League of Women Voters election site, Vote411.Org, which is also a great resource on national and statewide candidates and campaigns.
Help students volunteer—whatever their political views. As you're ensuring that every possible student is registered, create opportunities for them to reflect on their political choices. The 2008 Campus Vote Initiative and accompanying CampusChecklist offer excellent nonpartisan ways to do that. These sites and Your Vote, Your Voice also give useful tips for encouraging students to volunteer with whichever campaigns they choose to support. This involvement can be particularly important, because once students start volunteering in these kinds of efforts, they tend to continue throughout their lives. You can help by giving out the websites and phone numbers of relevant national and local campaigns, and helping students connect with groups like the College Republicans and College Democrats, or other on-campus efforts of the McCain or Obama campaigns. If students feel that the winner of their state is a forgone conclusion, they can volunteer with these same national campaigns by calling voters in other states. While your first priority is to make sure your school works to register all eligible students, your second is to engage students with this election in all other ways you can, while respecting their diversity of political beliefs. The more you reach out, the more you'll make it likely that both aspects succeed.
Start NOW—don't wait till fall. Organizing may be difficult during the summer, because many faculty and staff and most students are away. But to register and engage as many students as possible, schools will need a structure in place before students return for Fall classes. That’s particularly true if you want to engage them (and register them to vote) during programs like first-year orientation. So start as quickly as you can, draw in more people as you go, and plan easy ways for entering and returning students to jump in as soon as they arrive on your campus. You might even give the project an official name, like Campus Election Engagement Team, so people who participate can get credit for their service to the campus.
A few more suggestions:
Establish communications. To coordinate within your Election Engagement group, set up regular mechanisms to share information through email, phone calls, meetings, and online interactive tools like Facebook. Your Vote, Your Voice has just created a page at Facebook— also see YourRevolution.org for how students can email their Facebook friends to see if they're registered.
Form administrator-student partnerships. The most effective engagement efforts can happen when administrators and students work together. UC Santa Barbara student groups, for instance, registered 2400 students in a single evening when residence life opened the dorms for them to go door to door.
Contact Campus Compact. Tell your local State Campus Compact that you're working on this, so they can pass on relevant information and help you work with nearby schools.
Sign up to connect with others. Soul of a Citizen author Paul Loeb, who's consulting through Illinois Campus Compact for the 2008 Campus Vote Initiative, has created an interim campus engagement form you can fill out to connect with other people at your school or nearby campuses.
Use the mapping tool. A more comprehensive mapping tool is also being created like the one that helped FocusTheNation organize 1900 campus global warming teach-ins this year. Data from the interim form will be transferred to the mapping tool when it goes live in mid to late July. The new tool will let interested people at any given school connect with others to work together. This tool will be particularly useful for connecting the multiple higher education electoral-involvement efforts. For instance, if a service learning director takes the lead at your campus, they'll be able to link with a political scientist who finds out through their national association, and with a student affairs vice president or campus union director who gets engaged through theirs. The tool will be housed at www.campusvotemap.org, letting you enter your own information and see who else on your campus can help. Don't wait for the mapping tool to be available, though. If it's not yet up and running when you check, log in your information using the interim form and start organizing your campus to engage its students. The sooner you begin, the more impact you'll have.
- Use the summer to prepare for fall, building structures and procedures for when students return.
- Skim through the checklist and websites to get ideas for your campus—They have all the tools, models and templates you need.
- See what's already going on and who's involved.
- Work with existing efforts and enlist other strong allies to help.
- Identify gaps and consider ways to fill them, either through new initiatives or strengthening existing ones.
- Contact faculty and administrators in charge of relevant offices or departments
- Involve student leaders.
- Share existing online resources and any new ones you find.
- Coordinate by email, phone calls, meetings, and online tools.
- Sign in first using our interim form, and then the Google mapping tool. Keep your state Campus Compact posted.
- Follow-up to make sure key aspects don't fall through the cracks.
- Work where useful with other nearby schools.
- Forward a succinct summary of creative initiatives not already on the Compact site, so communications manager Karen Partridge, can add them.
- When it's over, pass on relevant lessons to your campus service learning office and your state Campus Compact, so they'll know what worked and what didn't for next time.
- Have fun—you're engaging students in the core work of democracy.
Thanks again for taking on this task.
FOR PEOPLE ORGANIZING OTHER CAMPUSES OR WORKING STATEWIDE
Here are some additional suggestions if you're organizing other campuses or working statewide. Start with the suggestions above, since they'll tell you what needs to happen on the campuses you work with.
Pick schools to engage. Once you have a sense of the available resources and useful approaches, figure out which schools you want to engage. A group from several St. Louis community colleges, for instance, will be collaborating with the Washington University service learning office, working to involve all the two- and four-year campuses in that city.
Identify potential contacts. Your initial contact list might be just the people you know at nearby campuses. But you can also draw on suggestions from your local Campus Compact state office, since they'll work with people at most schools—often service learning directors. If no one knows anyone at a particular campus you want to engage, start with the community service, student affairs, or student government office, which are most likely to respond. Check (and recheck) who else might have volunteered to help at a particular campus, using the mapping tool that will be at www.campusvotemap.org starting in mid to late July. The national efforts to engage campuses are less connected than they might be. This tool will help people connect who come in through any of these efforts. Don't forget nearby community colleges, whose students may be more overcommitted and less connected to their campuses, so often vote at lower rates than do those at four-year schools. If you can help them involve their students, they may be particularly well-positioned to engage their non-college peers.
Approach the schools and build a plan. After you've drawn up your initial contact list, and skimmed the resources available on the campus checklist, 2008 Campus Vote Initiative, and Your Vote, Your Voice, start contacting people. See what efforts are already going on, which offices are already involved, and which need to be engaged. Share the checklist and the companion section of this guide to show the engagement tools to those involved. Identify gaps in current efforts and figure out together what would be feasible and effective for each particular campus you work with. Ideally, you'll find a key individual or group to help get things going at each school, and can brainstorm with them on how they can best navigate the bureaucratic hurdles and enlist the support they'll need. You want to make one individual your prime contact person, but having a backup in case you can't reach them. This person could have an obvious campus role: for instance, the service learning director or a sympathetic staffer in the president's or provost's office. But it could also be any faculty or staff member (or key student leader) who know enough about how the campus works and has the enthusiasm to make something happen. Use your intuition and remember that if you want to build actual relationships, you need direct conversations, although email and other online tools can be enormously useful. To let additional potential allies find them, participants should enter their info into www.campusvotemap.org or our interim form if the map is not yet available Suggest that people assemble a broad enough team so they really can contact all the key departments and offices—and so if one person falters, another will pick up the slack.
Stay in touch. Then you can move on to other schools, but remember to send reminders to those taking the lead--persistently enough to move things forward, but gently enough not to annoy people. Make sure those who've offered to engage their campus are actually proceeding along the path they've mapped out.
Don't delay. This will be a major scramble with so many people away for the summer. Then you and your team will have an all-out sprint before the voter registration deadlines (in most states, the first week in October)--and then a month later, the actual election. The more you can help set in motion before students return, the easier things will be when they're back. Encourage schools you contact to pay particular attention to time-dependent opportunities like voter registration efforts that are tied to first-year orientation or to the period when students are registering and reregistering for classes. These must be ready before students return.
To sum up your challenge:
- Familiarize yourself with what campuses can do, using the checklist and website resources.
- Pull together your initial contact list from your state Campus Compact's suggestions and from people who sign up via the Google mapping tool.
- Contact key administrators, faculty, and student leaders at each campus.
- Share online resources with them, so they know they're available.
- Identify current initiatives and respond to potential gaps.
- Help participants develop an action plan, using the wealth of available resources.
- Get them to sign in using the mapping tool or interim form so others know to contact them.
- Brainstorm on how they can best navigate campus bureaucracies.
- Move on to the next school.
- Follow up with earlier contacts to see how things are developing.
- Check back on the mapping tool to look for new allies.
- Help refine ideas and programs—pass on ideas from other campuses.
- Spread relevant new materials, such as candidate and initiative information.
- Funnel innovative ideas to post on the national Campus Compact website.
- Keep touching back with people who are involved—coach them through the home stretch.
- After the election, collect useful information and particularly effective practices from participating schools.
- Pass reflections to your State Campus Compact and to the national office, so they can improve their outreach for next round.
Remember, start early and engage as many schools as you can--even while many staff members and most students are gone during the summer. By fall, many schools' efforts should be off and running on their own, and all you'll need to do is keep encouraging them. You'll then have an all-too-brief two months to engage those that haven’t gotten into gear, and to do what you can to help them. Remember that the official Florida margin in 2000 was 537 votes, in New Mexico 368 votes, and the margin in the 2004 Washington State Governor's race, 129 votes. Whoever the students you help get engaged end up supporting, you never know the difference that they might make.
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