Protecting the Student Vote in 2020: How One University is Scaling Up Their Efforts to Meet the National Need

By Elizabeth C. Matto

The 2020 election will be one like we’ve never seen in the United States. As the nation grapples with a public health emergency, Election Day practices will be upended and confusion promises to follow. Just when they were poised to make a dramatic impact on electoral outcomes, the participation of college students in this year’s election is under threat. To mitigate the effects of the pandemic on the youth vote, a nationwide response is required and colleges and universities must assume a lead role. The Center for Youth Political Participation that I direct is heeding the call by taking our evidence-based approach to student engagement and scaling it up with the launch of the RU Voting-National microsite.

As a discipline, political science is placing greater importance on encouraging educators of all sub-fields and across disciplines to prioritize teaching civic and political engagement to their students, guided by a growing toolkit of evidence-based classroom and campus-wide political learning and engagement methods. Supported by such resources as the APSA texts Teaching Civic Engagement: From Student to Active Citizen and Teaching Civic Engagement Across the Disciplines, political scientists are championing political learning and assuming prominent roles in leading student voting engagement on their campuses and beyond.

For nearly 20 years, RU Voting Rutgers has served as the resource Rutgers students, administrators, and faculty rely upon for registration and Election Day information. This nonpartisan project is dedicated to registering, educating, and mobilizing students to participate in the political process and has played a lead role in recent elections—coordinating a campus-wide civic engagement coalition to support student voting. In recent presidential elections, our turnout rates have outpaced the rates at comparable institutions. Increased student voter turnout for the 2018 elections earned us regional and national recognitions – winning the “Greatest Growth in Student Voter Turnout” in the Big Ten Voting Challenge and earning a “Gold Seal” from the ALL IN Democracy Challenge.

Where and how college students vote this fall will be confusing at best. With institutions of higher education in a state of flux, students will need to vote by mail (or at least will need to reconsider how they will be voting in this election). With a second wave of the pandemic expected to begin in late fall and the challenges of adapting physical space on campus to social distancing requirements, we should expect that the voting patterns of young people will be disrupted. Institutions must now quickly adjust—without a concerted effort by colleges and universities to help students adjust to new voting environments and considerations, there will be considerable drop-off in the youth vote across the country, with a potentially devastating impact on our democracy and young people’s futures.

On the Rutgers University-New Brunswick campus, we’ve responded by scaling up the heart of our RU Voting Rutgers effort—our website: a one-stop-shop for Rutgers students who want to get registered, get informed, and get to the polls. This campus-wide resource is featured on learning management systems and high traffic portals and referenced in campus-wide email blasts reminding students of important voting deadlines. Given the uncertainty of the fall semester and the likelihood that large numbers of students nationwide will not be on campus for Election Day, we have designed and are launching the RU Voting National microsite  that meets the most pressing needs of our students and students on college campuses across the country, ensuring that their vote is cast this year.

This is a critical moment for colleges and universities and educators across the country to play an active role in equipping our students with the information they need to vote.

Sleeker and easier to navigate than websites, a microsite houses a focused selection of content specific to a particular event, such as an election, and serves to advance digital outreach. Currently, there are a number of high-quality online resources that offer college students useful resources and tools. More often than not though, these sites have a high quantity of information requiring students to navigate the content and discern what relates to them and what doesn’t. Most of these resources are meant to complement in-person voter registration and turnout efforts, something we can’t guarantee this fall.

Not only does the RU Voting National microsite build upon our unique perspective as a University directly serving the voting needs of its students, it’s a resource by students and for students. In the creation of this microsite, it has been students researching the state-specific content and informing the design and construction. This fall, it will be Rutgers students earning academic credit that will keep the site current and accurate and will respond to questions from students around the country via our interactive chat tool. Here again, our work is founded on the best practice of peer-to-peer contact as a successful mode of mobilization (not to mention the political learning opportunity for the students bringing the site to life).

This is a critical moment for colleges and universities and educators across the country to play an active role in equipping our students with the information they need to vote. If you’re in the classroom, use the RU Voting Rutgers resource as a model and charge your students to craft a resource that meets the needs of your student body. If you’re a provost or college administrator who is facing budget cuts and who must now quickly adjust to changing models of higher education, time is of the essence to adapt voter engagement practices to be responsive to existing local and state circumstances. By making use of a central resource such as RU Voting National, you not only protect your students’ vote, but their futures and our democracy.

Elizabeth C. Matto is a guest contributor for the RAISE the Vote Campaign. The views expressed in the posts and articles featured in the RAISE the Vote campaign are those of the authors and contributors alone and do not represent the views of APSA. 

Elizabeth C. Matto is an associate research professor at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and directs Eagleton’s Center for Youth Political Participation (CYPP), leading research as well as educational and public service efforts designed to encourage and support the political learning of high school and college students and civic action among young adults, including those holding and running for office. Matto is the lead editor on APSA’s 2017 publication, Teaching Civic Engagement Across the Disciplines and the forthcoming Teaching Civic Engagement Globally, and edits the text’s companion website, a resource for educators who want to include political learning techniques in their curriculum. She is also the author of the book, Citizen Now: Engaging in Politics and Democracy (Manchester University Press, 2017). In 2016, Matto was awarded the Craig L. Brians Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research & Mentorship by the APSA, given to faculty members who demonstrate commitment to and excellence in encouraging and developing scholarship among undergraduate students, and in mentoring undergraduate students in preparation for graduate school or public affairs related careers. She also was named APSA’s Member of the Month in May, 2017. 

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