How Faculty Can Continue to Keep Students Democratically Engaged

By: Rachael Houston

This past election season, faculty helped their students register to vote, become educated about the candidates, and turn out to the polls. Like never before, faculty came up with all sorts of creative ways to prepare their students for the election in the middle of a pandemic. They developed course modules for voting on online learning platforms, placed voter registration information in their syllabi, and reminded students at the end of Zoom calls to get out and vote. Faculty, including those in the Faculty Network for Student Voting Rights, also gathered together in the virtual world to coordinate efforts from around the country to get students to vote. Despite many unforeseeable circumstances, faculty put their best foot forward to get students out to the polls.

It seems that these efforts paid off. From preliminary data collected by The National Study of Learning, Voting, And Engagement (NSLVE), 52%-55% of voting-eligible young people from the ages of 18-29 cast a ballot in the 2020 presidential election. This is an increase from the 44% NSLVE estimated in the 2016 presidential election.

From preliminary data collected by The National Study of Learning, Voting, And Engagement (NSLVE), 52%-55% of voting-eligible young people from the ages of 18-29 cast a ballot in the 2020 presidential election. This is an increase from the 44% NSLVE estimated in the 2016 presidential election.

Faculty should feel accomplished for all of their hard work in 2020. For many, it may feel like all of the work is done. After all, what else can be done after one of the most consequential elections in history? But the work is not over, and the Spring 2021 semester offers ongoing opportunities for faculty to continue promoting democratic engagement. We do not have a presidential election on the line, but there are several other ways faculty can continue to keep their students democratically engaged.

Local and State Elections: As we all know, elections happen more than just every four years. There are plenty of local and state elections that happen every year or every other year. Faculty can teach their students about local and state elections and the positions that are typically elected at these levels using Campus Election Engagement Project’s (CEEP) Local Elections Guide and State Elections Guide. Ballotpedia also provides a local elections calendar by region that can help faculty navigate all of the upcoming elections with their students. By talking with students about these types of elections, faculty can help integrate elections into students’ lives by teaching them to stay continually engaged.

Volunteer and Leadership Opportunities: While elections are a great way to get students democratically engaged, they are not the only way for students to have a voice in their communities. Faculty can encourage students to volunteer and take on leadership positions both on- and off-campus. For example, faculty can talk to students about student government, issue-based organizations or clubs on campus, and political party organizations on campus. Many of these organizations and clubs have elections for leadership positions. As for off-campus opportunities, there are many issue-based groups faculty can encourage students to join. Great Nonprofits provides a search portal that students can use to search for non-profits in their area based on specific issues. These volunteer and leadership opportunities can help students strengthen the ties they have to their communities.        

Civic Education: A survey CEEP conducted on/around Faculty Attitudes Toward Student Voting Initiatives finds that over 40% of faculty members from the sample feel that students do not vote from an informed point of view. To remedy this, faculty can provide students with civic education resources. There are plenty of resources that already exist that faculty can distribute to their students. Along with local and state election guides, faculty can distribute this CEEP guide on Common Questions After Election Day. For those unsure about the integrity of the election, CEEP produced an Election Integrity Resource that walks students through common questions about the process of mail-in ballots, poll watchers, and more. Besides these topics, faculty can teach students about media literacy, the relationship between federal, state, and local government, and voting rights. Many non-partisan civic organizations have also developed their own civic education tools for faculty, including the Faculty Champion Toolkit from Students Learn Students Vote, the Faculty Guide to Student Voting in Your Classroom from Scholars Strategy Network, CEEP’s Faculty Resources page, and Living Room Conversation’s dialogue worksheets.

Institutionalizing Election Day: Faculty and students rallied across the country to convince their campuses to cancel classes on Election Day or to close early on Election Day. As an example, Drexel University closed early on Election Day. The school’s announcement asked all faculty to plan accordingly and, if possible, provide flexibility and support for students. This initiative was taken on by Drexel’s Undergraduate Student Government Association and had strong support from their Faculty Senate and deans. At a neighboring campus, the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) canceled all classes on Election Day. Faculty can take the time now to ensure that their campus will provide flexibility to students for elections to come. Faculty can also use this time to help establish polling locations on campus to make it more convenient for students to vote if their campus does not already have a location. If this is not feasible, faculty can push for adequate transportation to take students to the polls every election.

Engaging with Elected Officials: Besides the presidency, students vote for many other elected positions at both the state and local levels. Now is the time for students to get to know the people who are holding these offices. Faculty can encourage students to communicate with their elected officials on Twitter or Facebook, by calling them, writing letters, and visiting their offices. They can also encourage students to attend town hall meetings and open forums. Common Cause’s search tool tells students who represent them at the federal and state levels based on their address. Ballotpedia also has a Who Represents Me page that students can use to search for their federal, state, and local officials.

Redistricting: In 2021, states will redraw their congressional lines. These new districts will determine who representatives will be accountable to for the next 10 years. This is a great opportunity for faculty to educate students about redistricting and its impact on students’ lives. Princeton’s Gerrymandering Project is a great place to start. The National Conference of State Legislatures has put together a list of each state’s process for redrawing its lines.

At first, it may have seemed like the work was over after Election Day. However, the work has just begun! There are many opportunities that faculty can take advantage of to ensure that students stay democratically engaged for years to come.

Rachael Houston 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. 

Rachael Houston is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She studies American politics and political methodology. For the last three years, Rachael has worked for Campus Election Engagement Project, a national nonpartisan project that helps administrators, faculty, staff, and student leaders at America’s colleges and universities engage students in federal, state, and local elections.

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