A Mission to Encourage Students to Vote Amid COVID-19

From published research to student initiatives, Tisch College is spearheading efforts to boost the student vote in the 2020 election

“Activism is a very big component to political engagement during elections. Activists vote at higher rates than non-activists,” said Nancy Thomas, director of the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education.

The 2020 election in the United States will shape history in many ways. Will record student voting rates be one of them? 

In the 2018 midterm election, college student voting rates doubled to 40 percent from 19 percent in 2014, according to the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education (IDHE) at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. The current national climate, in which protests against racial injustice have led to a rise in activism, may encourage even more college students to head to the polls.

“Activism is a very big component to political engagement during elections. Activists vote at higher rates than non-activists,” said Nancy Thomas, director of IDHE. “We can encourage activism. The challenge is, in a time of COVID-19 and the need for physical distancing and online learning, how do you do that safely?”

IDHE’s response to that challenge is Election Imperatives 2020: A Time of Physical Distancing and Social Action, a national report containing recommendations to increase college student voting and improve political learning and engagement in democracy.

These new 2020 recommendations are meant to be partnered with Election Imperatives Version 2.0, released in 2019. Many of the IDHE’S recommendations had to do with people talking to each other face-to-face to break down polarization and build relationships. So, they revised their advice to be applicable in a COVID-19 world.

“When we all disperse to our homes or dorm rooms, what's going to happen to relationships? What's going to happen to our ability to talk politics? What's going to happen to the underlying conditions that seem to beget high-level voting activity?” asked Thomas. “When those attributes of a strong campus climate were threatened, we dove into our data and came up with recommendations specific to physically distanced elections.”

Key Takeaways for Faculty

The advice targets three groups: presidents and senior administrators; academic deans, chairs, and faculty; and student-oriented administrators and groups, such as voter-mobilization coalitions on campus. Faculty members will be the most consistent communicators with students, and in that role, Thomas said, their most important responsibility is to embed political discussions into the student learning experience, regardless of the discipline, and to remind students of deadlines and their responsibilities in this critical election.

“Faculty members can't be timid. They are going to have to bring up these topics and discuss them, even if it's not part of their discipline, because even engineers, scientists, and artists have an obligation to make democracy work the way it should,” Thomas said.

Faculty should build relationships with students in order to discuss public affairs relevant to their disciplines and offer quick reminders, such as “Don’t forget to register to vote,” or “Remember to make a plan to vote.” Thomas suggested having a few links handy to give to students and taking just a minute of class to do this. In research, this is appropriately called “nudging.”

Putting Research into Practice

For student organizations, the key takeaways from Election Imperatives 2020 boil down to this: Talk politics, build community, and pay attention to who's in the room, Thomas said. “Learn how to become a good community organizer and learn how to do it across differences of race, identity, and interest.”

One of the student organizations putting that advice to work is JumboVote, Tufts University’s non-partisan, student-run civic- and voter-engagement initiative. Daniela Sanchez, A20, is the student outreach coordinator at the Tisch College of Civic Life and serves as advisor to JumboVote.

“We are promoting registering voters, working the polls, and calling and keeping up with elected officials,” said Sanchez. “We are working across all Tufts campuses, and we’re also highlighting that you don't need to be eligible to vote to be involved in an election year.”

JumboVote's work over the years seems to be paying off, as Tufts recently was named on the list of Top Campuses for Voting by Washington Monthy, which is based on data from the IDHE and  the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement based at Tisch College.

The group’s first initiative of the election season, which took place over the summer, was to send all first-year students in the U.S. a packet with a voting plan (see below), which includes answers to questions about where and how to register and to vote, as well as a state-by-state guide with information about absentee voting and high-stakes races.

JumboVote mailed this guide to Tufts students in the U.S. to help them make a plan to vote.JumboVote mailed this guide to Tufts students in the U.S. to help them make a plan to vote.

JumboVote is also implementing IDHE research by helping faculty “nudge” students with voting reminders, as Thomas mentioned. Sanchez said JumboVote’s members are making tutorial videos on topics such as how to fill out voter registration forms, absentee ballot requests, and more. The hope is that making these non-partisan resources easily accessible will encourage faculty members to share them with students on their class websites. JumboVote and the Tisch College team are also working with a diverse group of departments and offices across the university, including the Department of Political Science, residential life, mail services, dining, and Tufts Technology Services to embed student-voting resources everywhere.

“Students also are making tutorial videos on how to use TurboVote, which is the platform we use to help register students to vote,” said Sanchez. “It's a great platform because you can fill in your information, and it’ll send you text or email reminders about deadlines and elections where you're registered.”

Sanchez said another key IDHE recommendation—inclusivity—is a major priority for JumboVote. Data from IDHE’s National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement showed that students studying STEM topics, such as engineering and health care, lacked representation in campus conversations about voting. Sanchez and JumboVote are launching social media campaigns to try to engage these students and foster virtual community amid COVID-19.

It’s All About Engagement

Thomas expressed concern that inconsistent voting laws across the U.S. create a barrier to people who must spend time and energy to vote.

“Voting in this country is so unnecessarily confusing that people really have to want to vote, because it's a lot of work,” said Thomas. “There's a sense of defeat when it comes to the barriers that people have to overcome in too many states in order to vote, whether voting by mail or providing an ID. I think the bigger question right now is whether students can overcome the unique burdens they face around proving their residency and where they are going to be, physically, on election day.”

But Sanchez is optimistic that the current national climate will encourage more participation. “It's been interesting, given the parallel pandemics of racial injustice and COVID-19, to see the way in which students are speaking about voter engagement now,” said Sanchez. “The unprecedented nature of this entire election season is a huge opportunity to engage people who haven't engaged before or haven't felt the need to.”

Angela Nelson can be reached at angela.nelson@tufts.edu.

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