K-State Votes, a campus coalition to increase election turnout, was featured at the 2019 Midwest Campus Compact Conferencein Minneapolis on May 31. Two student leaders, Hayley Spellman and Corbin Sedlacek, joined Donna Schenck-Hamlin, ICDD Program Manager, to share methods and challenges for student voter participation in a session titled “All Things Political: Connecting Student Well-being, Discourse, Equity, Activism, and Voting.”
Spellman, out-going Chair of the Student Governing Association (SGA) committee on Government Relations, cited the proof of citizenship requirement and its contestation in the courts as a hurdle for first-time voter registration in Kansas. Keeping up with the court rulings that eventually eliminated the requirement, while helping students navigate the state or federal registration forms was a challenge met with support by the Kansas League of Women Voters (LWV). As an authoritative, non-partisan organization, LWV offered training and updates to volunteers helping with voter registration on and off-campus. K-State Votes correspondingly enlarged LWV outreach in community venues such as Juneteenth, Everybody Counts, and National Voter Registration Day.
A K-State innovation to stimulate online registration was the use of snapchat codes replicated in colorful posters and flyers across campus. Proposed by a previous SGA leader in 2017, the posters were produced by K-State Housing and Dining Services, whose residence hall assistants took training from LWV. Sedlacek, who also works in the Riley County Election Office, stressed the need for training to clarify for students what their address means in relation to their polling place and early voting options. Not realizing that with every move to a new residence comes a need to update registration, students may find themselves at the wrong polling place late on election day or forget to send an advance ballot when they register with a home address in another county.
Removing barriers to student voting is just one of many mandates to universities and colleges outlined by Dr. Nancy Thomas, who moderated the session and gave the closing keynote address. Director of the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education (IDHE) at Tufts University, Thomas is co-author of Election Imperatives: Ten Recommendations to Increase Student Voting and Improve Political Learning and Engagement in Democracy. The 2018 report aligns the goals of increased voter participation with the academic goals of fostering democratic values such as inclusion and equity, respect for dissenting viewpoints, collaborative decision-making and standards of evidence and truth.
These goals demand thorough reinforcement inside and outside of the classroom as a corrective to public polarization and disinformation. To accomplish this, the report recommends strategies for conducting year-round inter-disciplinary and inter-group discussions on complex and controversial issues, facilitated to increase learning and skills. These strategies build a campus participatory culture that takes responsibility for election year engagement by students, staff, and faculty.
K-State is one of over 1,100 colleges and universities that monitors its student registration and voting rates across electionsthrough the IDHE National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement(NSLVE). In our 2012 to 2016 Campus Report, the voting rate of registered students increased by 14% to just under 60%, although this fell well below the registration rate, which declined from 77.8% to 76.1%. IDHE conducts studies with NSLVE data to identify predictors of voting, and Thomas revealed that age, inexperience, membership in underrepresented groups, and major (STEM fields) correlated with low participation, while gender (female), affluence, education level, and favorable voting conditions correlated with high participation.
K-State can build on the activism of students like Sedlacek and Spellman to increase participation, but Thomas urged a more permanent, inclusive coalition with strong administrative support to fulfill the public mission of education for democracy. The forthcoming NSLVE report on 2018 participation, along with the Elections Imperative report and Politics 365-- identifying characteristics of campuses with high rates of political learning and democratic engagement -- offer us a roadmap for progress.