Engaging Students on National Voter Registration Day at Mississippi State University

Thessalia Merivaki, Assistant Professor, Mississippi State University, 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.

National Voter Registration Day (NVRD) is “a national holiday celebrating our democracy,” when coordinated voter registration efforts take place nationwide at the grassroots level and on social media. Strategically scheduled on a Tuesday, two weeks prior to voter registration deadlines in more than fifteen states, the purpose of NVRD is to encourage voter registration and proactively facilitate the process of registering to vote. NVRD offers a great opportunity to register students to vote and increase democratic engagement on college campuses.

On September 25, 2018, about 865,015 Americans registered to vote, setting the highest record of voter registration activity aside from the actual voter registration deadlines across the states. 2018 also marked the highest rates of voter turnout in a midterm election, and a notable increase in college student turnout. Voter registration among college students in over 1,000 campuses across the nation reached 73.4% according to the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE), conducted by the Institute of Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University. These successes reflect efforts by higher education institutions, faculty and students to organize and implement data-driven campaigns in order to increase voter registration and build civic engagement in college campuses. Here, I talk about some of the efforts we have made to encourage student civic engagement at Mississippi State University.

National Voter Registration Day at Mississippi State University

Prior to the 2018 election, Mississippi State University joined the All-In Campus Democracy Challenge, an organization which supports campuses that commit to building civic engagement capacity. The Office of Student Affairs, representatives from Student Government, and a designated faculty member (that was me), sat down months in advance to draft an action plan for the midterm election. The goal was to “increase student participation,” which is admittedly very abstract. As the designated faculty member, I recommended that Mississippi State launch a “National Voter Registration Week” from Monday, September 24 to Friday, September 28, 2018, where student volunteers would hold registration drives in multiple locations across campus. Logistically, that involved working with Event Services on campus to reserve supplies, such as tables, chairs and canopies, and recruiting enough volunteers to fill five-hour slots for every day of the week.

I committed to having my students conduct voter registration drives on National Voter Registration Day in lieu of holding class. As a researcher and instructor of elections and voting rights, this was a wonderful opportunity for students to get a hands-on approach to the mechanics of voter registration. Additionally, it is the most efficient approach for successful voter registration on college campuses, as researchers found that in-person efforts by one’s peers are more likely to engage college students. Students of my Campaign Politics class utilized the 2014 and 2012 NSLVE reports for Mississippi State University, which contained information about voter registration and turnout broken down by major, race, and class year, and drafted voter registration plans. The locations for the voter registration drives, therefore, were selected by the students so as to specifically target students who are the least likely to vote.

Students set up stations outside freshmen residence halls, the athletic center, and the engineering department, among other locations.

To assist them, I assigned this activity to my Legislative Process class, which met on the same day and immediately after the Campaign Politics class. The fact that both classes met on NVRD, between 9:30am – 12:30pm and on a Tuesday, undoubtedly facilitated the planning and executing of this effort.

A week prior to the event, I conducted voter registration training in class, and invited one of the Election Commissioners to provide an overview of Mississippi election laws. This is an important part of the process, as students need to know the rules guiding voter registration, absentee voting, and have the necessary information to assist those who have questions. Mississippi does not have Online Voter Registration and allows for absentee in person voting only if the voter provides a legitimate excuse for not being able to vote on Election Day, which has to be notarized in advance. Given these restrictions, providing accurate information was of the utmost importance.

These efforts involved 60 students, including student volunteers from Student Government, for about three hours and resulted in 340 new voter registrations. A representative of Student Government, who was also enrolled in Campaign Politics, was in charge of collecting sign-up sheets with the contact information of the students who registered to vote in order to keep a tally on the flow of students per location. Aside from NVRD activities, students also visited classrooms in these departments and discussed the importance of voting and why college students should be more involved in elections.

Preparing for 2020

In December 2018, Mississippi State submitted a report to Voter Friendly Campus, whose role is to help institutions coordinate voter outreach efforts by working with faculty and students. As a result, in the Spring of 2019, Mississippi State received the designation of “Voter Friendly Campus.” As of now, our institution is the only school in Mississippi with this designation.

On Tuesday, November 24, 2019, we repeated these activities, albeit not in the same magnitude. Though 2019 is not a federal election year in Mississippi, there was a statewide election on November 5. Students from both my Fall 2019 classes were assigned to five locations on campus and registered 140 students to vote within a period of 3 hours. Because we had built some capacrity from 2018, we were able to mobilize student volunteers during the whole week of September 23-27, and cumulatively submitted 540 voter registration applications from first time voters.

According to the 2018 NSLVE report for Mississippi State, voter participation increased by 14.3% compared to 2014. Student turnout also increased in majors with notoriously low turnout rates, such as Biological and Biomedical Sciences (+10.3%), Business, Management and Marketing (+14.1%), and Computer and Information Sciences (+16.2%).

Gearing up for 2020, my goal is to engage all Mississippi State political science majors on NVRD, which will require a robust commitment from the Political Science and Public Administration department, as well as the cooperation of all the faculty. If my students had not been involved in 2018 and 2019, it is perhaps less likely that we would have seen an additional 480 voter registrations of Mississippi State students. This promising result, as well as the positive student experience, and the notable increase in student turnout, should be strong enough evidence to suggest that these efforts can be even more impactful if more resources are allocated to them. Political Science departments should take the lead and incorporate National Voter Registration Day into their class schedules.

Thessalia Merivaki is an Assistant Professor in American Politics at Mississippi State University, Department of Political Science and Public Administration. Her research focuses on the empirical assessment of election reforms and their impact on the administration of elections across the American states. Her research agenda is situated within the growing field of Election Sciences, which includes the study of election reforms, election administration, as well as election data transparency and accessibility.

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