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Sunday, May 12, 2013
Natasha Lee will go to great lengths to conjure up a little democracy at Virginia Western Community College. The student activities coordinator even dressed as a witch one Halloween and set up a table in a high-traffic spot on campus with a sign reading “Don’t be scared to vote.”
From that experience she learned that students want to vote, but they’re often confused about whether they are registered; if so, where and if not, how to do it. She also realized she needed a better way to connect with students than a big pointy hat.
“We could only reach students who were walking by and stopped to talk to us,” she said.
Enter Sam Novey, director of partnerships at TurboVote, a nonprofit group based in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Novey and his organization want to “make registering to vote as easy as renting a movie from Netflix,” he said last week during a visit to Roanoke.
Virginia has spent centuries creating an electoral system that makes it as hard as possible to vote. Is Novey going to parachute into the commonwealth and mess all that up?
I certainly hope so. But Novey is quick to note that his motives are purely apolitical. He’s not trying to steer new voters into Virginia, a swing state in presidential elections.
He doesn’t tell anyone which candidate to support. He doesn’t even express an opinion about Virginia’s new photo ID law.
His job is simply to help people understand and comply with the voting laws that apply to them.
TurboVote’s focus is on college students, a group that presents significant challenges. They’re unfamiliar with voting procedures and highly mobile. Some students establish residency where they go to school, but others on campus are eligible to vote in hundreds or even thousands of hometowns across the country.
College students are also tech savvy though, and that’s how TurboVote reaches them. The nonprofit operates a digital platform that tracks participants’ voter status, sends them registration and absentee voter materials, and reminds them via email and text when important deadlines are looming. TurboVote also lets voters know their polling places.
The group worked with 58 colleges last year and registered 109,000 voters, but it’s not going into hibernation for four years. The nonprofit wants to help students vote in all elections, from school board races to presidential contests.
The next step for TurboVote is a program it calls New Standard for Campus Voter Engagement, newstandard.turbovote.org, an effort to fully integrate voting into campus life. Virginia Western and Roanoke College have already signed on to participate, and Novey was in the region last week to explain the initiative to other higher education leaders.
Plans for how the program will work are just getting started at Virginia Western and Roanoke College, but they will have plenty of ideas to draw on. Universities last year placed links to TurboVote’s registration platform on their intranet sites as well as web pages containing class schedules and financial aid information. Some colleges issued email blasts about the program and even promoted it on video boards at football games. Colleges pay a nominal per-student fee to TurboVote, which ensures the nonprofit is accountable to the institution and covers costs for services, including a help desk where students can call with questions.
“It makes it easier for everyone, no matter where they live or who they’re going to vote for,” said Lori Baker, dean of student services at Virginia Western.
Roanoke College President Michael Maxey said students will play a key role in planning the initiative, in keeping with the shared mission of the college and TurboVote.
“We’re educating for citizenship and this is a great example of how we can engage,” Maxey said. “It’s making sure you build the habits of citizenship from the start.”
Nuckols is editorial page editor of The Roanoke Times.
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