Engagement through Experience: Student-Led Voter Registration Efforts

By Chelsea Kaufman

Campuses across the United States are engaging in efforts to promote student voter registration as the 2020 election approaches. In my own efforts to promote civic engagement on my campus, I want to foster an environment where efforts are student-led, investing them in the process and allowing their voices to be heard. I decided to propose a course that would incorporate both service learning and experiential learning and ultimately result in student-led efforts to register fellow students to vote, educate them about voting, and encourage voter turnout. During the spring semester of 2020, I was able to offer this course, titled “Voting Rights Past and Present,” through Wingate University’s W’Engage program.

The W’Engage program offers community engagement seminars each semester. The seminars are two-credit courses including a short domestic travel component aimed primarily at sophomores. In this particular seminar, the students began by learning basic information about the history of voting rights for several groups in American society, including women, African Americans, Hispanics and Latinxs, Native Americans, Asian Americans, young adults, and people with disabilities. We then traveled to historic sites, exhibits, and museums in Alabama and Georgia, participating in the commemorative reenactment of the Selma-Montgomery march along the way. This experiential travel component allowed students to contextualize the lessons specific to voting rights within the broader history of the Civil Rights Movement. Upon our return, our focus changed to modern day voting rights issues, including gerrymandering, voter identification laws, voting restrictions for felons, and voter roll purges, as well as the general impacts of the Shelby County v Holder decision. I also invited guest speakers from the local community to discuss their own voter registration and civic engagement efforts. Students then produced their own non-partisan voting guides to educate their peers and encourage them to vote in the 2020 election.

The experiential travel component allowed students to contextualize the lessons specific to voting rights within the broader history of the Civil Rights Movement.

The W’Engage program gave us the opportunity to include domestic travel in our seminar. Students contended that this experience was very impactful, though promoting student-led civic engagement on campus can occur without a trip of this nature. I recommend incorporating at least the following elements into a course in order to promote these efforts:

  • Include exercises that allow students to experience aspects of this history, such as having them attempt to complete a voter registration form or literacy test from the past.
  • Invite guest speakers that currently do voter registration or other civic engagement work in the local community. This will teach students best practices for their civic engagement activities and connect them to their local community.
  • Include service-learning assignments where students lead the efforts to promote voter education and civic engagement. For example, they could hold a voter registration drive or produce their own “student voter guides” containing non-partisan information.

It is also not necessary to have a course dedicated to this specific topic in order to promote civic engagement. These elements could be included in any relevant course, as students who are not experts in these topics can still learn the fundamentals. In fact, several of the W’Engage students came from disciplines outside of political science. To ensure that the materials were accessible for students with little to no background in the discipline, I often made use of resources like The Monkey Cage, which provides content that is written by experts in the field but is also appropriate for general audiences.

The students came away from the course with a renewed sense of the importance of voting, and the benefits to our campus continue. Only twelve students enrolled in this course, but their efforts will impact many additional students. Unfortunately, our course was moved online by the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in the cancellation of a planned in-person voter registration drive. However, we still plan to distribute the student voter guides they created and continue with other virtual efforts to encourage student voter registration this fall. For example, we are creating an online module for our first-year experience course about civic and community engagement which explains the voter registration and voting processes. Furthermore, we were able to make connections with organizations promoting civic engagement in our local community. They are also assisting us with virtual civic engagement initiatives, such as creating voter information videos. I plan to continue working with these organizations to promote civic engagement on our campus and beyond and bring their representatives into my classrooms as guest speakers in the future.

The W’Engage students and instructor standing in front of the sign for the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail after participating in the 55th anniversary commemoration march reenactment.

Chelsea Kaufman 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. 

Chelsea Kaufman is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Wingate University in Wingate, NC.

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