How to get nearly 90% of students to vote
In the 2020 election, St. Olaf College students voted in a big way.
A whopping 87.6% of eligible students cast their ballot, according to the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE). That’s a rate more than 21% higher than the national average, and it’s nearly 6% higher than the college’s own 2016 student voting rate.
These impressive numbers led St. Olaf to win a national award for the highest voting rate among all colleges and universities participating in the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge.
St. Olaf also won the Minnesota Democracy Cup for having the highest voting rate for private colleges in Minnesota.
“Here at St. Olaf you are building a coalition of democratic citizens. It was a coalition that was created at the founding of this country almost 250 years ago — and it is a coalition that must grow with every generation,” Michael Dean, the executive director of LeadMN, the organization that created the Democracy Cup in partnership with the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office, told campus community members as he presented the trophy.
“You are showing students what it means to serve, volunteer, vote, listen, learn, empathize, argue better, circulate power rather than hoard it, and accept the rule of law,” Dean added.
You are showing students what it means to serve, volunteer, vote, listen, learn, empathize, argue better, circulate power rather than hoard it, and accept the rule of law.LeadMN Executive Director Michael Dean
But building a coalition like this doesn’t just happen by chance. So how did St. Olaf get nearly 90% of students to vote? Let’s break it down.
An Election Engagement Group
In the fall of 2019, Dean of Students Roz Eaton and Vice President for Equity and Inclusion María Pabón attended a workshop on ways to engage students in the upcoming election. They returned to the Hill and gathered a group of staff and faculty interested in providing election education and resources. This Election Engagement Group, as they dubbed it, met regularly — at times, as often as weekly — throughout the year.
In addition to Eaton and Pabón, members included Academic Civic Engagement Program Director Alyssa Melby, Student Activities Director Brandon Cash, and Associate Professor of Political Science and Department Chair Chris Chapp. Other members filtered in and out, but this core group did the heavy lifting on key pieces of work — from organizing the St. Olaf Voter Portal, to working with city election officials on the logistics of hosting an on-campus polling location during a global pandemic, to getting key student leaders engaged in the work. They relied on and leveraged their connections and community relationships — both on and off campus — to accomplish it all.
“It was a group of interested and dedicated people who were willing to share the work and support each other’s efforts,” Eaton says.
The Election Engagement Group quickly realized that student leadership would be key. So Melby applied for funding from the Campus Election Engagement Project (CEEP) through Minnesota Campus Compact to support two student fellows. Those fellows — Hannah Liu ’21 and Linnea Cheek ’21 — proved pivotal in educating and encouraging Oles to cast their ballot.
To create a strong voting culture, Liu and Cheek focused on peer-to-peer mobilization. They built a toolkit for a team of 70 election ambassadors, equipping them with the plans and skills they needed to talk to students about voting. They hosted a webinar series for the entire campus community on various election topics, wrote a Student View column on why casting a ballot is so important, did an Instagram takeover on the college’s account, and set up tables around campus to talk to students about voting and provide information. And as the pandemic fundamentally altered how many people across the nation engaged in the election, they continued to tailor their efforts to what worked best for St. Olaf students.
“As the pandemic shifted our social and academic lives online, it was really important to mobilize in a different way,” Cheek says. “We found that while our virtual events did not gain as much traction among our peers, our tabling, posters, chalking, and live and active conversations pushed our efforts forward. It would seem Oles were ready to get off of their screens and get out the vote.”
And ultimately, Liu says, St. Olaf students listened to each other, learned from one another, and worked together.
“A culture can’t be created with a top down approach — it really has to come from the students themselves,” says Liu. “I thought it was incredibly impressive to see how individual conversations between students added up to create the voting culture at St. Olaf. Our peer-to-peer strategy worked because the message was amplified from the grass roots.”
I thought it was incredibly impressive to see how individual conversations between students added up to create the voting culture at St. Olaf. Our peer-to-peer strategy worked because the message was amplified from the grass roots.Hannah Liu ’21
The team of 70 election ambassadors that Liu and Cheek organized included Oles involved in athletics, residence life, student organizations, and academic civic engagement courses. Their mission was to connect individually with their peers, answer questions, get Oles excited about voting, and help students make a plan for how they would register to vote and cast their ballots — whether that was in Northfield or back home.
By election day, they had connected with close to one-third of St. Olaf’s student population.
A significant number of the election ambassadors were students in Chapp’s Parties and Elections class, as well as students in the American Conversations program. Chapp notes that the ambassadors program, which was deliberately structured based on political science research, gave students the opportunity to connect what they were learning in the classroom with their election engagement work across campus.
“Using student peer networks to create face-to-face contact opportunities is an approach that comes directly from political science literature on voter turnout. When it comes to voter mobilization, the rule of thumb is ‘the more personal, the better,'” Chapp says. “I think too often people misunderstand what political science is — but this is an example that shows that when we apply volumes of research to a real-life issue, it actually works!”
Using student peer networks to create face-to-face contact opportunities is an approach that comes directly from political science literature on voter turnout. … This is an example that shows that when we apply volumes of research to a real-life issue, it actually works!Associate Professor of Political Science Chris Chapp
In addition to this academic support, the election ambassadors program received significant leadership, resources, and time from St. Olaf Athletics.
“All of the classes and organizations that got involved in the election ambassador program were extremely valuable to our efforts,” Cheek says. “The athletic teams in particular were fantastic at mobilizing their teammates and serving as guides to the voting process.”
St. Olaf Senior Woman Administrator and Head Volleyball Coach Emily Foster says while Athletics initially planned to have two election ambassadors per team, it quickly evolved into an “All Oles Vote” challenge. Ole athletes created a team-by-team social media challenge. Each team took a pledge to get 100% of their members registered to vote and committed to use their voice in encouraging other students to cast their ballot. Once the team reached 100%, they used social media to publicly challenge the next team to do the same.
Foster says the competitive nature of the challenge resonated with athletes.
“It was an outstanding display of the motivation Ole Athletes have to do what is right and to stand up for more than sports in a way that was — and continues to be — inspiring to the greater community,” she says.
On election day, athletes wore matching “All Oles Vote” T-shirts, shared voting stickers on social media, and assisted with on-campus voting. The Athletics Department committed to not holding any athletic-related activities on election day, instead encouraging athletes to focus on helping Oles cast their ballot.
“We support our Ole student-athletes in using their voice, and one of the most impactful ways to do so is through the ballot box,” Athletic Director Ryan Bowles says.
In addition to tried-and-true voter engagement efforts, Liu and Cheek note that part of what made their work successful — and fun — was that so many people across campus were willing to support innovative approaches.
For example, they recorded a “movie trailer” about voting that played every time a student watched something on the streaming service provided by the Office of Student Activities.
On election day itself, the duo came up with the idea to drive a golf cart around campus and throw “All Oles Vote” T-shirts at students. They weren’t sure if campus leaders would buy into the idea, especially so late in the game, but they brought it to the Election Engagement Group anyway. Within the hour, they were on a golf cart, holding signs and throwing T-shirts.
“Whenever Hannah and I had an idea, no matter how difficult or last minute, the Election Engagement Group pulled their resources to actualize our ideas,” Cheek says.
Melby notes that St. Olaf has long used innovative approaches to teach students about the importance of democratic engagement. In the spring of 2020, students in the American Conversations program produced a series of podcast episodes to provide nonpartisan information on key voting issues ahead of the election.
The St. Olaf Voter Portal included resources to help non-U.S. citizen students stay engaged in the election process even though they couldn’t vote. Students led by Professor of Political Science Dan Hofrenning traveled to New Hampshire in January 2020 to work on the front lines of the presidential primary as part of a longstanding Interim course. In 2018 Chapp organized and led a conference that showcased student research on the midterm elections. And the list goes on.
“There’s such a strong foundation for civic engagement at St. Olaf,” says Melby, noting that the Parties and Elections class and American Conversations program have been doing an election engagement project for at least the last seven election cycles. “We don’t get to this high of a voting rate without many years of an active student body and people across campus who are dedicated to this work.”
There’s such a strong foundation for civic engagement at St. Olaf. We don’t get to this high of a voting rate without many years of an active student body and people across campus who are dedicated to this work.Academic Civic Engagement Program Director Alyssa Melby
On-Campus Polling Location and Voter-Friendly Laws
And, of course, one critical component of supporting student voter engagement is making it as simple as possible for students to register to vote and cast their ballot.
“We’re fortunate in Minnesota to have such voter-friendly voting laws that allow us to register students on election day and mail in our ballots without too many issues. We’re also fortunate to have a voting location on campus so that students don’t have to organize transportation to vote in-person,” Liu says. “We need to keep advocating to remove systemic voting barriers for all students, because for many, voting on campus as a young adult is so important for shaping a life of civic engagement.”
Liu and Cheek are applying their passion for civic engagement to their careers beyond St. Olaf. Liu lives in Washington, D.C., and works at the Center for Law and Social Policy, where she does policy research on issues that impact immigrants and immigrant families. Cheek works in U.S. Senator John Hickenlooper’s Denver office, where she supports communications and legislative research, and is applying to law school.
After their fellowship ended, Liu and Cheek spent time compiling their notes and resources so that the ambassador program they created can continue in the next election cycle.
“We’re excited to see how the next student leaders carry on and expand the program,” Liu says.
And college leaders in the Election Engagement Group will be there to support them along the way. This past spring, students in a Social Policy course led by Professor of Social Work and Family Studies Mary Carlsen evaluated and assessed many pieces of the 2020 election engagement work on campus. The Election Engagement Group will use the recommendations provided by the class — which include continuing the election ambassador program, working more with faculty to integrate democratic engagement reminders into their courses, exploring options to “ask every student” through existing programs like new student orientation and move-in day, and including more voices from across campus in the Election Engagement group — for the 2022 midterm elections.
“We know that active participation in civic engagement during one’s college experience begets a more involved citizenship later on in life because of the civic habits it creates,” Cash says. “For St. Olaf, the 2020 presidential election proved to be an incredible learning lab for our community.”