Engaging Students in the Election—45 Ways To Still Make a Difference

by Paul Rogat Loeb

Helping students become engaged in the 2008 election was easy. Many had been involved since the primaries. Passionate and excited, they volunteered, debated issues and candidates, and streamed to the polls. Administrators and faculty helped them navigate registration and voting hurdles, and suggested ways to become involved, but it took little convincing for them to feel that their participation mattered.

Now many students who enthusiastically voted or looked forward to doing so, face dashed hopes and disappointment. Where they once hoped to be part of a transformational change, they may now doubt that our elected leaders can successfully tackle any of our major national problems. Some have continued their newfound involvement around issues from fair wages for campus workers to passing the DREAM Act and challenging massive tuition hikes. But most campuses are relatively quiet, with students inhabiting what a University of Wisconsin Green Bay student called “a bubble of insulation,” one that leaves crucial political debates barely visible in the distance.

Students are still willing to volunteer in local community service efforts. They’re still fired up by the scathing political critiques of the Daily Show and Colbert Report. And practically every campus has some groups volunteering in the election. But these groups are far more modest than those of two years ago, and their peers respond to them with less excitement and urgency. Students I’ve talked with do care about the future of the country. But without charismatic presidential candidates to focus their attention and armies of volunteers urging them to turn out to the polls, many may end up staying home.

That gives faculty, administrators, and student leaders an even greater responsibility to help them reflect on the choices at hand, and encourage them to vote and volunteer for candidates of their choosing. Two years ago, I worked with Campus Compact to create a non-partisan project that pulled together effective election-engagement ideas from campuses nationwide and worked to help colleges and universities implement them. Campus Compact then collected many of these best practices at their Campus Vote Initiative site, a great resource for what we can still do to help students become engaged in the elections. I’ve now compiled a more detailed list of 45 involvement approaches that can still make a difference. You won’t have time to do all of them, but with luck, your school is already doing some and whatever you can do will help. The more that all of us can do to make clear why this election matters and to help students navigate barriers from their own frustration, insulation and cynicism to Byzantine registration and voting regulations, the more will show up at the polls.


  1. Deadlines vary, but students may still be able to register in your state. Rock the Vote has an online registration tool along with related state-by-state information and a tool to sign up for reminders. See also www.866ourvote.org and www.vote411.org for state-by-state deadlines, forms, and requirements.
  2. If the deadlines are still open, faculty can pass out and collect registration forms in their classes and use class time to ask students to use the RockTheVote tool. RA’s can do the same in the dorms, as can student organizations with door-to-door “dorm storms.” A few years ago, U.C. Santa Barbara student organizations registered 800 students in one night with a dorm storm.
  3. Students studying abroad or registered in other states can vote with an absentee ballot. The Overseas Vote Foundation provides detailed information on how to register as an absentee voter from abroad as well as deadlines for each state. For absentee ballot information within the US, see vote,org Absentee Ballot. Campus Compact’s Campus Vote Initiative has detailed advice on absentee voting.

  5. Discuss the election in every possible venue, but particularly in the classrooms, since those reach everyone. Debates between student organizations are great, but often only involved those students already most concerned, so encouraging students to discuss key races and related issues in the classrooms is critical. Create space for strong fact-based arguments, so students can engage with each other and convince peers who aren’t in their classes to vote.
  6. Hold similar discussions in campus residence halls. They’re a more intimate and less intimidating space than huge campus auditoriums.
  7. Work to get students accurate information on the key differences between candidates (or election initiatives), and then help them reflect on their own beliefs. You can do this through contrasting candidates’ stands on key issues like economic and tax policy, climate change, health care, campaign finance reform, and student financial aid. You can also point students toward non-partisan information sites like the League of Women Voters, On The Issues, and ProjectVoteSmart provides an interactive guide (though a bit simplistic) through which students can see which candidates align with their views on particular issues.
  8. Don’t assume students know the historical context of the choices we now face. At a dozen campuses that I’ve visited this year, at most five percent of the students I asked knew about critical recent Congressional votes on student financial aid, from the $12.9 billion in cuts in 2005 to the increases in student financial aid and caps on student loan repayment that passed in spring of 2010. Similarly, most have little sense of the policy decisions that have grown America’s tax and trade deficits. If candidates take radically different positions on human-caused climate change, students should know that and where the overwhelming majority of scientists and international scientific organizations stand. The more you can give them accurate perspective on these questions the more they’ll be able to make informed choices.
  9. Promote critical thinking about campaign ads and rhetoric. You want students to vote, but also to think critically about why they’re voting. So it helps to dissect misleading campaign ads (www.Factcheck.org and www.politifact.com are widely-respected sources). You can also encourage students to reflect on the massive impact of money on our political process, including ways they can act on it long-term, like the Maine, Arizona and Vermont clean elections model that I discuss in my Soul of a Citizen book on civic engagement. Exploring real differences between candidates is an antidote to “they’re all corrupt” withdrawal.
  10. Offer historical perspective. Most students have little sense of how significant change has occurred in our culture. When I tell the Rosa Parks story from Soul of a Citizen, no more than five out of a hundred students in a typical audience know that she was involved in the NAACP for a dozen years before her famed stand on the bus, or that she took training at the Highlander School the summer before her arrest. Not knowing how long-term change occurs makes it easy for students to get caught in what I call The Perfect Standard, a trap where they dare not get involved unless they know every fact, figure and seventeenth decimal point statistic, are as eloquent as Martin Luther King, and feel like it’s the perfect time to act. 2008 may have seemed like that perfect time. For most, 2010 does not. Yet their choices and actions may be equally important.
  11. Challenge the assumption that elected leaders are either absolute heroes or villains. Students can all too easily apply this same Perfect Standard logic to candidates or elected officials, assuming that they’re either the second coming of the Messiah, or worthless betrayers. Remind them that working for change is a long-haul task, and that even if elected leaders they’ve supported have disappointed them, they have the power to either elect new ones or build enough grassroots pressure so that leaders they carry to office will address key issues as forcefully as they need to.

  13. Display information on candidate platforms in the student union, blown up large enough so it’s visible to passing students. Include information on initiatives, many of which are far less visible and therefore a source of far more confusion. You can find The League of Women Voters’ downloadable information on your state’s initiatives here.
  14. Post lists of key websites in libraries, study areas, dorms and places where students use computers. Ask your election board or the local League chapter for the official non-partisan voters’ pamphlets for the area. Place copies in key locations around campus. Create and distribute a sample ballot that includes your regional issues and candidates.
  15. Get students to sign a “Pledge to Vote.” Rock the Vote lets people pledge to vote and then receive a call or text reminder from one of their favorite musicians. You can also create and collect a generic pledge card where student groups or the campus IT system can follow up with reminders. Encourage Faculty to distribute pledge cards in class and allow class time for students to plan when they’ll vote.
  16. Encourage guerrilla theater. In 2008 University of Colorado Denver ordered Obama/McCain masks and gigantic boxing gloves and used them to hold mock fights and break dancing contests all over campus. Florida State University students formed a flash mob, gathering in the student union with t-shirts promoting the voting date and slogans like “I vote for peace” or “I vote for health care.” They froze for five minutes to let the crowd look at them. Then they moved on, did the same thing elsewhere on the campus, and repeated it again. Both efforts worked wonderfully to interest students who would have ignored tables or signs. Entertain as you engage and educate, while handing out voter pledges and voting information.
  17. Engage students in canvassing their peers. As 1-866-Our-Vote suggests, if registration is still open, recruit a cadre of student volunteers to go door-to-door in the dormitories asking students if they have registered to vote. Even if it isn’t, you can do the same with pledges to vote. Have materials ready so that those who have not already registered or pledged can do so on the spot. Leave door hangers for when no one answers. Keep track so that you can return in the days leading up to the election and remind them to go to the polls. With particularly enthusiastic volunteers, a canvassing operation can also be taken out into the surrounding community: University of Miami students registered 10,000 nearby community members in off-campus registration drives.
  18. Remind students through phone banking. Call students the day before Election Day and remind them to vote. Recruit 20-30 students to volunteer and make phone calls each evening leading up to the election. Let them use the phones in your institution’s administrative offices. Provide refreshments and copies of the campus directory. (One person can usually place 20-25 phone calls in an hour.)
  19. Sponsor Trick or Vote canvassing. This Halloween-linked campaign has been developing since 2004 and has excellent online materials available so you don’t need to start from scratch. Take advantage of parties happening that day to spread voter education, get out the vote and voter protection messages. You can also can hand out candy messages: Get some bags of candy and stick or tie small messages to them (“Vote on Nov 3”, “Bring ID to the polls”, “How are you getting to the polls?”) Then put on a costume (or not) and hand them out on campus. People are much more likely to take a piece of candy than a flyer.
  20. Hold absentee Ballot parties. Massachusetts’s Westfield State held one where students could get their necessary ID info photocopied and have snacks while privately casting their ballots, addressing them, and stacking them to be mailed. Other schools have given students stamps to mail back their ballots, so they didn’t have to hunt them down.
  21. Display posters, banners, signs and sandwich boards (as permitted) around campus with various messages to encourage voting, remind of absentee ballot request deadlines, educate about what to bring the poll. Adapt X, or create your own. Print out IVote stickers to go on everything from book covers to water bottles to bicycles. Print door hangers listing polling places and have Plant Operations or RA staff can hang them on students’ doors. Provide chalk for students to chalk campus walkways with messages and images to encourage voting, share websites and announce activities. Minnesota’s Student Volunteer Foundation worked with the Minnesota State College Student Association to get posters on same day registration to every community college in the state, including the tribal colleges.
  22. Use social networking sites to carry messages about voting. Use existing campus groups and cause groups and encourage students to post onto their sites to encourage all their friends to vote. Consider placing last minute Facebook ads, targeting students on your campus. Perhaps do a new ad each day with a slightly different message, including a countdown to remaining deadlines and to Election Day.
  23. Encourage students to text their friends and send them Facebook messages with voting reminders leading up to Election Day and on the day itself. Encourage them to use Headcount’s online tool to set up Election Day texting reminders.
  24. If possible, have the payroll office accompany student paychecks with a short memo from the president reminding students to vote.
  25. Write op-eds and letters to editors for campus newspapers about the importance of each person’s vote and existing student initiatives where they might easily participate. Highlight salient issues like student financial aid. Encourage students to carve out the time both to make educated choices on issues and candidates and to figure out how and when they’ll fit voting into their lives.
  26. Set up mock polling places, perhaps in the student union, with sample ballots for students to practice voting and consider how they’ll vote. University of St. Francis (IN) did this as part of their registration drive. Dry runs can ensure students, particularly new voters, bring what they’ll need to at the polls and can also encourage them to learn about issues and candidates before they enter the polling booth. Have written information available on voting mechanics and candidates and issues. You can also have stamps available so absentee voters can send in their ballots immediately. Sites like 1-866-Our-Vote explain local rules and tell students what to do if they encounter problems, so you can make distributing their information part of a dry run.
  27. Give students the necessary voting info. Throughout this outreach, make sure people know where they’ll cast their ballot (at a polling place, by mail, or through early voting), what time they’ll do so, and what kind of identification they’ll need to bring. Publicize polling locations on or near campus including directions, hours and transportation options. Remind people to be prepared in case the lines are long.

  29. Encourage students to volunteer in campaigns of their choosing, and remind them that the home stretch is the most important. Faculty and staff can encourage students to participate directly, in ways that multiply their impact on the election. Students can knock on doors, make calls, or volunteer as poll-watchers with the candidates of their choice—playing a critical role in getting out the vote for campaigns they support. If they do get involved, even if only briefly, they’re more likely to be involved in future issues and campaigns. Students can volunteer with individual campaigns or through nonpartisan voter-turnout efforts like the New Voters Project of the PIRGS.
  30. Faculty can also give students extra credit for volunteering and then reporting back through journals, papers or classroom presentations.
  31. Give examples of the difference that volunteering can make. A Wesleyan College student profiled in Soul of a Citizen registered 300 students at her campus, educated them about the issues she cared about, and saw the Congressional candidate she supported win by 27 votes.
  32. Publish a list with campaign contact information (for all parties, candidates and initiatives) in the school newspaper and on the school website. Encourage students to volunteer in these existing efforts. Highlight campus volunteer opportunities (like the College Republicans or College Democrats) so people can easily plug in.
  33. Get students to volunteer with local voter protection efforts. Law students can play a particular role volunteering with the non-partisan Election Protection coalition.

  35. Work with the campus IT department to send reminder emails, voice-mails and text messages to every student. These messages can include links to resources such as www.vote.org where students can find out where to vote and what they need to bring, and sites where they can verify registration. Encourage students to make a logistical plan for how and when they’ll cast their votes.
  36. Check that key campus websites have been updated with links to voter information sites. Include a visible countdown to Election Day so emphasize the importance of this election.
  37. If possible send at least one message before absentee ballot deadlines to remind those who cannot get to their polling place or vote early. Send an election day follow up (or the day before) to remind everyone to vote at the polls.
  38. Hold parades to early voting sites or polling places. In 2008, University of Colorado Denver students held a parade to nearby early voting site as a way of getting other students interested. Schools where the sites are further away can do this with carpools. Early voting avoids the problems of jammed schedules or long polling place lines, plus gives students a chance to correct any problems. You can repeat these parades on November 2d, to make voting a community activity.
    Hold a pre-election rally to promote voting, or tie into major campus events. An “AGGIES Get Out to Vote” at North Carolina A&T rally included live music, food, and voter registration tables. Central Michigan Univ created a commercial with CMU athletes and volunteers that they played on the Turbatron one of their football games.
  39. Encourage “Take a Date to the Polls” and “Real Friends don’t let Friends Vote Alone” concepts to foster support within peer groups (use posters, messages, Facebook ads, etc)
  40. If your prime polling place is off-campus, offer rides to the polls and encourage carpooling and going to the polls with friends. Set up a RIDEShare tool on Facebook so students can hook up rides and riders to the polls. Kentucky Campus Compact did this via a campus discussion board. Some campuses have rented buses or vans to shuttle students from campus to their polling places.
  41. Ask faculty to let students miss classes, if need be, to vote. This is particularly valuable at community colleges, where students often have little time between work and school, so can’t afford to stand in long lines. In 2008 Virginia’s Liberty University cancelled all classes on Election Day and scheduled shuttle buses to take students to the polls.
  42. Organize Election Day dorm storming. Knock on doors and offer rides or company going to the polls to registered students blowing it off at the last minute. Make “I voted” buttons or stickers to give to people you find who have voted and invite others to get theirs once they do vote.
  43. Phone bank to all student registered voters for whom you have phone numbers. If you did a registration drive you should have these from your earlier efforts.
  44. Plan for entertainment and snacks near the polling place while students wait in line or wait for their friends to make it through the lines. Create Hospitality Teams to periodically check area polling places and help students who are waiting in line. If you hear of long lines at a particular polling place on Election Day, send volunteers with coffee and snacks as well as umbrellas and hand warmers to make the wait more comfortable.
  45. Plan Election Night Parties to watch returns in student unions, dormitories, fraternities, sororities and other places where students gather. Distribute a list of campaign parties around town as well so students can join in community celebrations, particularly if they’ve volunteered.

    This shouldn’t be necessary, but Byzantine state laws and their capricious application make it essential that campuses protect the rights of their students to vote. Working to make sure every possible student could register and that their votes would count turned out to be a critical aspect of our 2008 election project.

  47. Encourage students to check out and verify their registrations before election day. This lets them address problems before it’s too late.
  48. Check state ID rules and let every student know what they need to bring to the polls. If necessary, issue appropriate issue zero balance utility bills or personalized letters from the college president to provide ID for students who’ve registered at dorm addresses. In Ohio, for instance, students living on campus at public college and universities (including out-of-state students) could satisfy voter ID rules with a letter from their schools, which Ohio Compact helped draft with input of Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner and Chancellor Eric Fingerhut, and residential students at private colleges used zero-balance utility bills provided by their administrations. If you’re not sure how to provide this, check your local state Campus Compact.
  49. Distribute the election information number 1-866-OUR-VOTE. It connects you to volunteer lawyers who can answer questions and correct misinformation from poll-workers. Have student volunteers outside the polls with the election information number in case students have problems. Make sure students know their rights at the polls and have the 866-OUR-VOTE number with them in case of problems. In 2008, Florida Compact had to counter misleading emails on where to vote, and Ohio’s John Carroll University had to bring down the official state-wide guidelines to get some local polling places to accept the ID letters they’d provided to their students
  50. If your school gets most of its students to the polls, celebrate publicly. Whatever the results, work to make clear that elections are just one way for students and citizens in general to help shape our country’s direction. Build on whatever momentum you’ve created for ongoing service learning and civic engagement efforts, like those of Campus Compact. Thank people for all they’ve done to further student involvement.

Paul Loeb is the founder of the national nonpartisan Campus Election Engagement Project. His civic engagement books, like Soul of a Citizen and The Impossible Will Take a Little While, have over three hundred thousand copies in print. A version of this article also ran in The Huffington Post.

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