GUEST POST: How workshops helped Turn Up Turnout at the University of Michigan

By Elizabeth Pratt, University of Michigan student

In an ideal world, Americans young and old would storm the polls, or fill out their absentee ballots, with enthusiasm and knowledge come election day. It would not matter if the election was for local officials or the president, because American citizens would care regardless. Unfortunately, this is not the world we live in, at least for the moment. The world we do live in is a world where many people feel discouraged to vote—especially 18- to 24-year olds. 

“Why is this?” you may ask yourself. For some young adults, the problem with voting is the complicated registration process. For others, it is a lack of understanding about how to register to vote, and then how to actually vote at the polls. Others may not understand the importance of voting, especially in midterm and local elections. Turn Up Turnout, a nonpartisan student group at the University of Michigan started by Professor Edie Goldenberg, hopes to encourage 18- to 24-year olds to vote despite these concerns. 

This past summer, Turn Up Turnout, known by its members as TUT, worked to create and implement a workshop teaching incoming students at the University of Michigan WHY it is crucial to vote in midterm and local elections, as well as HOW to register and vote. The workshop includes a deliberative discussion encouraging participants to share differing opinions, common misconceptions about voting, a timeline detailing when certain groups of Americans gained the right to vote, and reasons why it is important to vote. The workshop is meant to be interactive and educational, allowing students to voice concerns about voting, which facilitators can address in hopes of demystifying the voting process. 

One challenge we faced, even before facilitating, was remaining nonpartisan. This has been the basis of TUT from its inception, the treasured key to our success. Therefore, we had to be concerned about everything from the colors of the slideshow to the deliberative discussion topic, since no data could appear to clearly favor one argument over another. We overcame this difficulty by meticulous editing of the presentation and thorough research into the information we provided. However, the most important way to remain nonpartisan was to remind ourselves of the purpose of the workshop: to teach and encourage everyone to vote, because voting is the lifeblood of the democratic process. 

Through the facilitation of these workshops, we learned a lot. For one, we learned how important it is for participants to be given a voice, regardless of their opinion. We encouraged this by circling the room during the deliberative discussion to hear what everyone said, calling on people who had not talked yet or raised their hands, and allowing for uncomfortable silences in hopes that someone would feel like talking who had not done so before. We also learned that many participants did not understand aspects of voting such as absentee ballots or not having to fill in every item on the ballot—concerns that we now make a priority to address in our presentation. 

Furthermore, TUT has partnered with the Ginsberg Center at the University of Michigan to register students on TurboVote at new student orientation. This initiative resulted in the registration of over 1,200 students on TurboVote, placing the University of Michigan at the top of the TurboVote leaderboard for over two months. The main challenge we faced was: how do we make sure our booth is not ignored by students who are tired of waiting in line and have their hands full with pillows and suitcases?  We dealt with this problem by having someone stand outside of the sign-in room and tell students, in firm language, that the next step of signing in was to register to vote. Thus, students understood the importance of what we were doing and could ask us questions while navigating TurboVote. From this process, we learned how crucial it is to have students register in front of you, where they are held accountable and can see how easy it is to use TurboVote, which will aid them in registering to vote and much more. 

TUT’s work will not stop here. We are proud of our summer initiatives, and plan to continue to develop them over the fall, as well as tackle some new projects. Some of our next steps include:

  1. Training facilitators at Michigan universities to implement our workshop in high schools across the state;
  2. Continuing to register the University of Michigan students through TurboVote at campus events;
  3. Teaching a class on strengthening the right to vote; and
  4. Kicking off the Big Ten Voting Challenge. The Big Ten Voting Challenge starts in September 2017. This is a competition between all Big Ten schools to see who can achieve the highest percentage improvement of voter turnout in the 2018 midterm elections, as well as who can most improve their percentage of voter turnout in the 2018 midterm elections (compared to the 2014 midterm election turnout). TUT and the Ginsberg Center will be hosting events on campus to register students through TurboVote and engage students in hopes of helping U of M win the challenge.

In closing, we at TUT hope sharing our challenges and triumphs will give other universities the tools to implement movements on their campus, because the time has come for universities to acknowledge and use their power to impress upon students the importance of fulfilling their civic duty. One piece of parting wisdom is that increasing student voter turnout is composed of three simple aspects: 

  1. Collaboration between students and faculty;
  2. Transparency of universities concerning voter turnout statistics on campus; and 
  3. Hard work by people who are passionate about their mission. 

Good luck! 

For more information on TUT, our initiatives, and our events, visit sites.lsa.umich.edu/tut.