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Wednesday, October 9, 2013
A worthwhile college education will prepare students to excel in industry and further scholarship.
That same education, however, should also empower students to be engaged citizens well beyond their college years.
The Higher Education Amendments of 1998 include a provision that institutions should make a good faith effort to distribute voter registration forms to each student in attendance.
What constitutes a good faith effort is not as clear.
As vice president of the Virginia Tech Student Government Association, I have taken part in traditional voter registration efforts. Unfortunately, setting up registration tables does not typically meet the needs of our population of student voters. That’s why the Virginia Tech Student Government Association, in partnership with Virginia21, is implementing TurboVote on our campus. TurboVote is a digital platform that provides users with all the information and materials needed to vote in every election. It allows us to raise the bar from voter registration to voter engagement. Users are able to access the forms they need to register to vote and/or request an absentee ballot, in addition to signing up for text and/or email reminders for upcoming elections. Our students are able to access this resource at no cost to them.
How well an institution serves its student voters is tricky. While Tech is a public institution, we also serve thousands of out-of-state undergraduate students. Additionally, many of our first-year students come to campus as newly eligible voters. Traditional voter registration efforts do not allow us to serve our diverse student population to the best of our abilities.
Students should be able to make an informed personal decision as to where they choose to claim residency and register based on applicable laws, and stay involved with all of the elections they are eligible to participate in as voters — everything from local to presidential.
We have only begun to implement TurboVote, but have found success by using highly leveraged tactics. With one campuswide email on Sept. 24, National Voter Registration Day, nearly 250 Virginia Tech users signed up for TurboVote. Of the 13 public institutions currently implementing TurboVote in Virginia, we ranked the first in sign-ups on that day.
We certainly can leave voter registration to partisan groups. Take a walk around campus, especially as we are quickly approaching the Oct. 15 voter registration deadline, and it is not difficult to run into folks registering voters.
That is good news. There are tens of thousands of eligible voters around who may just need to hear a simple “Are you registered to vote?” to decide to do so. However, with the obvious positive learning outcomes associated with voting, the HEA’s stipulations for assisting students with registration, and the inherent tie between education and citizenship, one might think that institutions of higher education would be quick to institutionalize voter engagement. Some do, but it is not a national norm.
I do not think our colleges and universities should single-handedly be responsible for registering all students to vote. I do see tremendous value in institutionalizing voter engagement on our campuses. Students regularly interact with bottleneck processes, such as an orientation program and class registration.
Why not give the students the option to register to vote as well? I’m thankful our students have access to a resource like TurboVote that brings voting to the 21st century. Imagine if students everywhere had a similar opportunity.
Young voters are often seen as apathetic for not participating in elections. What can we do to combat this, especially at our schools, the places that already organize thousands of young voters?
If we get folks voting from ages 18 to 22, they will certainly do the same at 30, 40 and 50. Now, more than ever, we need to do all we can to raise up a generation of informed and engaged voters.
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