Student View: Mobilizing St. Olaf voters in 2020
In this Student View column, Campus Election Engagement Project (CEEP) fellows Hannah Liu ’21 and Linnea Cheek ’21 share the resources they’ve developed to educate Oles on how to vote — and why casting a ballot is so important.
BY HANNAH LIU ’21 AND LINNEA CHEEK ’21
In 2020, students are facing a number of challenges — some new, such as the pandemic, and some existing that have been brought to the forefront of our attention, such as systemic racism. Although it may be easy to feel helpless amidst such daunting circumstances, we have seen so many people rise up and reclaim their power — on the streets, at the ballot box, and in countless other ways. We believe that voting is one way in which young people can change their current circumstances and influence their futures. However, it is undeniable that there are numerous barriers to voting in the United States, and it has only worsened during the coronavirus pandemic. In many places, poll worker shortages have extended lines, causing many to worry about their health and safety in public places. In addition, polling place closures have disproportionately affected BIPOC communities and have furthered existing disenfranchisement in those areas.
We are fortunate at St. Olaf to have our own on-campus polling place on Election Day. St. Olaf regularly leads the state, and the nation, as one of the schools with the highest turnout. In the 2018 midterm election the national average for turnout at higher education institutions was 39.1%, and St. Olaf’s turnout rate was 60.5% for eligible voters (2019 NSLVE Report). However, this achievement has not been won easily. Voting laws in Minnesota are seen as among the most accessible in the nation, yet small mistakes, missed deadlines, and logistical challenges have made voting on campus a difficult task. For example, many students do not know that they need to specify their dorm when they register to vote or need to re-register to vote when they change dorms. Other students, especially voters from out of state, may not be familiar with election deadlines. Small barriers like these add up and make the “cost” of voting higher, deterring students from casting their ballot. Student voter mobilization efforts, such as the ones implemented by the Office of Academic Civic Engagement (ACE) and student organizations in 2018, are the key to overcoming these barriers. We are continuing this legacy by launching information campaigns aimed to educate our peers about their voting options: voting by mail, voting early in person, and voting in person on Election Day.
The Campus Election Engagement Project (CEEP) is a national organization that aims to mobilize students across the country to be civically engaged. As CEEP fellows, we have been coordinating with the Election Engagement Team at St. Olaf to launch a unified effort to encourage Oles to vote in this year’s election. CEEP is working with different parts of campus— utilizing athletic networks, student organizations, and Academic Civic Engagement classes to help us reach our goals.
Our most expansive program is the St. Olaf Voter Mobilization Project, an effort to get St. Olaf students to pledge to vote. Studies have shown that students who pledge to vote are much more likely to follow through with their voting plans. We have recruited Election Ambassadors to use their networks at St. Olaf and collect pledges to vote. We use the form responses from the pledges to vote to help us get an idea of where our fellow students are at in the voting process and adjust our messaging and the resources we provide accordingly. The key to the program: Election Ambassadors will follow up with their pledges to keep students informed on upcoming deadlines and changing options for voting. This strategy is important to our efforts because we want to ensure that students’ voting plans turn into action.
We hope to achieve record-high voter turnout this year at St. Olaf, but we also want every student to vote all the way down the ballot. In 2016, only about 27% of on-campus voters who voted in the presidential election voted in the City Council election (Minnesota Secretary of State). Northfield’s ballot features important races for the Minnesota Supreme Court, House of Representatives, State Senate, School Board, and Mayor, to name a few. It is incredibly important to be informed about your precinct’s candidates and vote in every race (St. Olaf is Ward Four, Precinct 2). KYMN Radio has put together a helpful guide for researching down ballot races in Northfield.
To achieve our goal of reinforcing campus political education, we have been hosting a webinar series, featuring distinguished panelists who have shared their expertise on a variety of political topics, such as election education, felon disenfranchisement, and voting rights. Our next webinar will be on Saturday, October 24 at 7 p.m. CDT, where our panelists will be discussing Election Predictions. Our featured panelist for this event is Professor Gabe Sanchez, who is Principal at Latino Decisions, the country’s most prominent survey firm studying the Latino electorate. The webinar series has given us the opportunity to work with and listen to amazing people that are doing incredibly important work in this country. Everyone is welcome to attend, and the link is located on the stolaf.edu/vote homepage.
Overall, we’ve found that students want to be civically engaged, they just need to be reminded and provided resources! At the very least, we hope that every eligible student fills out our pledge to vote form in the coming weeks before the election. Beyond that, we want students to remind their friends about election deadlines. Remember, the earlier you vote, the better! Our Voter Portal (stolaf.edu/vote) includes all the essential information about being civically engaged on campus. If students have any questions, they can use our voter email hotline (firstname.lastname@example.org). If students want to get involved with our project, they can email us at any time! We have amazing opportunities to get engaged with the election on the St. Olaf campus, and we welcome anyone and everyone to join us in our efforts.
After collecting over 800 pledges to vote (and counting!), we have been incredibly reassured knowing that so many of our peers have already gotten their votes out! The most amazing aspect of these projects is feeling connected to the St. Olaf community and all the wonderful people in it. We believe that if we all work together these next two weeks, we can make a huge difference.
Hannah Liu ’21 is majoring in political science and music, and would like to eventually be a part of the policymaking process in government. Linnea Cheek ’21 is majoring in political science with a concentration in international relations, and she plans to take a gap year after graduation and then attend law school in 2022.