By Alec Bowman
Like basketball and quiz bowl, voter registration often works best when you have a team. At the University of Akron (UA) in Ohio, Ali Doehring (Assistant Director, Student Life) and Anne Bruno (Executive Director, Student Union) wanted to create a hard-working and diverse team of activists who would help them register UA students and bring them to the polls. From good friends and unlikely allies, they assembled a small team committed to this plan. Together, they would register thousands of students.
In July 2012, Ali and Anne were focusing on ways to bring the benefits of akron.turbovote.org to the rest of UA’s campus. Akron’s TurboVote program existed as a link with unknown potential, so they searched for other people who were excited to transform potential into real civic involvement. The Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics came on board early, bringing trusted political scientists to Akron’s “voter mobilization team.” As the initial leaders began talking, they asked each other to consider people who worked outside of their related fields -- any place or any person who could help voter registration in distinct ways. Soon, administrators, faculty, student government, parking services, university marketing, and the athletics department had gathered to execute their mission. Additional campus organizations including the College Democrats, College Republicans, and UA No Labels chapter joined the effort. They established a few strategies:
First, they needed to introduce TurboVote. Voter registration is no new challenge to many UA students. Club members and activists bearing clipboards and ballots met the voter mobilization team, who explained how the UA-TurboVote tool can supplement their hard work and grow their reach to more students. An intern was hired, to promote peer-to-peer education and outreach initiatives. Outreach initiatives include UA’s very first “Candidate Open House” as well as “Pizza & Politics” events. A link to UA-TurboVote was uploaded to the school web site, and an easy-to-read toolkit was created for campus leaders who needed to convince students to register. The toolkit offered:
- a poster,
- a script to announce TurboVote,
- templates for Facebook and Twitter posts,
- a promotional email example, and
- a QR code linking to TurboVote, easily included on printed materials
As the toolkit said, getting students registered at UA was as easy as “making grilled cheese.” That is, if a grilled cheese made itself for you.
To sweeten all of their hard work, the team wanted the voter registration campaign to look great. Luckily, UA’s University Communications & Marketing, knew how to help. They gave the posters and handbills sleek designs and modified the UA-TurboVote site to include the familiar UA-Blue color scheme. Parking Services placed the posters in school shuttles, complete with the QR codes, and hung banners at bus stations where students waited. Other promotional materials were nailed to sandwich boards across campus. The registration drive became nearly ubiquitous, thanks to the cooperation of the UA community.
UA also found smart ways to interact with students in person. They set up TurboVote sign up tables outside dining halls, expecting to be largely ignored by hungry students. Instead, the tabling attracted a surprising number of students and allowed them to register. When it was time to vote, Parking Services dedicated a shuttle to transport students directly to the polling station, and some on board admitted that they had not known where the polling station was. Buttons that read “I Voted Because ____” were distributed to students and clubs who could proudly fill in a specific reason. The athletics department even helped get out the vote with a football game that was played on election day. Students who showed up with an “I Voted” sticker received a free hot dog.
When their election watch party came to a close, the members of the voter mobilization team concluded an impressive feat for local democracy. Thousands of UA students had registered, many of whom would not have registered without their school’s efforts. The University of Akron has created a strong voter engagement model and supporters of civic engagement have a blueprint to follow.