Students, staff and faculty join forces to mobilize student voters at Brown

With the pandemic presenting new obstacles to voter turnout, collaborative initiatives are enabling and encouraging student participation in the 2020 election and setting the stage for a lifetime of civic engagement.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Civic engagement among young voters in America has long lagged behind that of older residents — and even at a university nationally recognized as Best in Class for student voting rates, Brown students have not been fully immune to this trend.

While eligible student voters at the University were more likely than their peers at other institutions to cast ballots in the past two federal elections, there is room for improvement on voter turnout: 59% of eligible Brown students voted in the 2016 presidential election, and just more than 45% did so in the 2018 midterms.

To encourage full student participation in the 2020 election and set the stage for a lifetime of civic engagement, Brown students, staff and faculty alike have launched a range of collaborative initiatives to provide students with the resources to effectively navigate what will be, for many of them, their first federal election — at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has presented new challenges to students seeking to vote.

At the forefront of campus efforts to mobilize student voters is Brown Votes. A nonpartisan student organization launched in early Spring 2020 with support from the Swearer Center, Brown Votes has rallied Brown’s many student-led political organizations around a shared goal — providing resources and peer support to spur fellow students to cast their ballots.

The task of mobilizing student voters has been made more difficult as a result of the pandemic, said junior history concentrator Madison Mandell, a civic engagement fellow at the Swearer Center.

“Traditionally, a lot of voter mobilization happens at in-person voter registration drives and debate parties, and things like that are just not possible in the current climate,” she said.  

Furthermore, many state voting rules and mail-in ballot procedures have changed in response to the pandemic — all during a time when students themselves are wrestling with the effects of COVID-19 on their own lives, said junior Kimberly Collins, a civic engagement fellow at the Swearer Center and a public policy and Africana studies concentrator.

“People are feeling very overwhelmed right now, both with COVID-19 and with the changing information about voting,” she said. “A lot of our job has been just making the process as easy as possible.”

To achieve this, the members of Brown Votes have executed a communications plan that uses the group’s website and various social media feeds to disseminate up-to-the minute information on voting procedures and deadlines in each state.

“We’re making sure that students understand how they can vote safely by mail or at the polls,” Collins said.  

Brown Votes is also tapping into the University’s active student communities to help spread its message. Launched on National Voter Registration Day on Sept. 22, the Brown Votes Challenge aims to generate 100% turnout among students eligible to vote in this year’s election by asking (and incentivizing with prizes) existing student groups — from athletics teams to clubs to Greek organizations — to pledge that all of their eligible members have cast a ballot in the current election.

“Registration is an important first step, but it’s just the beginning of the voting process,” Mandell said. “We really want to make sure that Brown students can execute on voter turnout.”

“People are feeling very overwhelmed right now, both with COVID-19 and with the changing information about voting. A lot of our job has been just making the process as easy as possible.”

Kimberly Collins Swearer Center Civic Engagement Fellow & Class of 2022
Kimberly Collins
 

As part of the challenge, Brown Votes is also encouraging student groups to create and post to social media content encouraging their peers to vote. Each group creating content promoting student voting will be entered to win a grand prize after Election Day.

Already, student groups are using the Brown Votes Challenge to motivate their members — and other student groups — to register and cast their ballots. Student groups of all types, from varsity men’s basketball to the Brown Derbies a cappella group, have posted content to their social media feeds announcing that all of their eligible members have registered, pledging 100% voter turnout and encouraging their peers to do the same.

By building upon existing relationships among students, the Brown Votes Challenge seeks to harness the power of peer interactions — which research shows have significant influence on student voter turnout — during a time the pandemic is limiting in-person social exchange, campaign organizers said.

“Sometimes the student body just is more willing to listen to fellow students, especially when it comes to something like youth voter turnout,” Mandell said. “It’s a lot more effective if your peers are the ones telling you, ‘Come on, everyone, step it up. This is really important and our voices and votes matter.’”

Student organizations affiliated with Brown Votes are leading their own initiatives to support the goals of the challenge. For example, student members of Every Vote Counts, a national nonpartisan organization dedicated to increasing voter turnout, have been sending text and social media messages to their peers reinforcing critical information — such as how to register and request an absentee ballot — and encouraging them to vote. Thus far, the group has reached out to nearly 3,000 students, said junior Jack Malamud, president of the organization’s Brown chapter and a political science and classics concentrator.

Both Brown Votes and Every Vote Counts have embarked upon their work with support from the Swearer Center, which counts civic engagement among its most essential priorities.

“When we began organizing Brown Votes, we knew we wanted to put students at the forefront, but we also knew that we needed support from the Swearer Center to make a lot of what we’re trying to do feasible,” Collins said.

Mandell added, “The Swearer Center has done an amazing job communicating our initiatives to faculty and administration. We would not be the same organization without our partnership with them.”

Staff and students based at the Swearer Center have collaborated with centers and departments across campus to support the efforts of Brown Votes and extend its messaging to the greater Brown community. Working with Swearer, the University Library has created a research guide that compiles nonpartisan voting resources, including links to state election resources, government data, poll results and Brown’s TurboVote page, which guides users through the registration and voting processes in their states.

In addition, the staff of Mail Services has distributed hundreds of stamps and envelopes, funded by the Swearer Center and Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, to students requesting mail ballots.

“Our first election initiative partnership was with the Watson Institute during the 2018 election, and it has just built from there,” said Steve Pokorny, the civic engagement program manager at the Swearer Center. “We are always looking for opportunities where we can work together with people who have expertise that is different from our own.”

The Watson Institute is also hosting an array of events designed to engage young voters with the issues animating this year’s political contests. Many of these — including an election night virtual watch party and webinars with political experts, such as former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, U.S. Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Angus King, and NBC political analyst Zerlina Maxwell — are open to the public. Others are designed exclusively for students, such as a five-week study group with former U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp and a first presidential debate watching party organized with the Swearer Center.

“The practical challenges of getting young people to the polls can be exacerbated when they don’t see the connection voting has to their lives,” said Richard Arenberg, interim director of the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy, which has helped to lead the Watson Institute’s Election Day programming efforts.

“Our programming aims to help students determine what’s at stake for each of them in this election,” he added. “The more fired up they are about this election, the more likely they are to fly over any hurdles to voting.”

To enable every member of the Brown community to exercise their right to vote, the Brown faculty voted in September to suspend classes and other University exercises on federal election days, beginning this fall. The days will also be paid holidays for Brown employees.  

While all of these initiatives strive to increase the number of Brown students who cast ballots this year, they also lay the foundation for a lifetime of broad community engagement, said Betsy Shimberg, interim director at the Swearer Center.

“These are voting habits we want students to be forming their whole lives — every general election, every primary — but the vote is just the very visible tip of the iceberg,” she said. “When we create a culture of civic engagement on campus, we help engender the types of community conversations that will impact everybody in our communities, including those who are not necessarily eligible to vote. That’s what our democracy is about.”