6 Lessons Learned from Building a Campus Infrastructure for Civic and Political Engagement

From left: Vote Everywhere Team Leader Gabby Vance, Program Manager Kevon Haughton, Ambassador Thomas Armooh, Program Manager Margaret Sasser, Campus Champion Bob Frigo, and AGF President David Goodman on a recent campus visit at Elon University.

In the spring of 2014, a faculty member in political science reached out to the Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement here at Elon University and proposed a collaboration focusing on student voter registration. Soon afterward, our institution partnered with The Andrew Goodman Foundation (AGF) through the Vote Everywhere program and hosted our inaugural AGF Ambassador.

In the years that followed, Elon University’s civic engagement efforts have grown tremendously. We are especially grateful to the support that AGF has provided in helping Elon to develop our institution’s approach to this important work through the wonderful resources and training provided by the Vote Everywhere program.

The thoughts below are some lessons that we have learned along the way. We recognize that each campus is different and will ultimately have to craft a campus-specific approach to civic and political engagement efforts. You are welcome to adapt the ideas and concepts below given the needs and landscape of your respective institutions. 

1. Assemble a Campus Coalition

Bring together a team of students, faculty, and staff to drive efforts on your campus.

How this looks on our campus:

Established in September 2015, the Elon Political Engagement Work Group was initially charged to implement voter education activities and increase student participation in local, state, and national voting and election initiatives, as well as plan and prepare activities leading up to the 2016 election. This collaborative team now involves students, faculty, and staff representing areas such as the Center for Leadership, Department of Political Science and Policy Studies, Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement, National Campaign for Political and Civic Engagement, Residence Life, Student Government Association, Student Media, and Study USA. Elon’s two Vote Everywhere Ambassadors are key members of this campus team. Our group is co-chaired by a faculty member in political science and a staff member from our service-learning and community engagement office. This team is committed to finalizing our campus calendar of events well in advance. For example, the fall calendar is set before the end of the spring semester. This allows for faculty to build our events into their syllabi and student organizations to add our programs to their calendars.

2. Connect with Local Election Officials

Cultivate a working relationship with your local board of elections.

How this looks on our campus:

When our work group launched, one of the first things we did was reach out to the director of our board of election in our county and arrange a meeting in person. We began the conversation by asking what has been a past success and a previous challenge in working with your college or university. In our conversation, the primary problem from the past was that students who registered to vote locally had been using their campus post office box address instead of a physical street address. Once that issue was identified, we worked together to craft clear language that we could share with students and post on our campus TurboVote site. This relationship led to excellent guidance and support leading up to election day, where we provided local polling places with booklets containing the names and addresses of students living on-campus to assist with address verification since our campus is divided into two precincts.

3. Build a Home for Voter Information

Develop an online central hub for information.

How this looks on our campus:

Since we have students from all 50 states, it is an ongoing challenge to provide information on voter registration, absentee ballots, and links to our TurboVote site, in addition to election day happenings and publicity on upcoming events. Our Elon Votes! website provides timely information under the following headings: Register to Vote/Request an Absentee Ballot, Verify Your Voter Registration, Voting in North Carolina, Calendar, and Resources. Our initial meeting with the board of elections led to the development of helpful language that students who vote here in our county can use to navigate our local voting process.

4. Tap Into the Vast Array of Existing Resources

Utilize resources that have already been created by nonpartisan organizations.

How this looks on our campus:

We make use of tools provided by trusted colleagues and organizations before creating our own. The Institute for Democracy & Higher Education (IDHE) at Tufts University is an exceptional resource. Not only can you join the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE), but you can access materials such as Facilitating Political Discussions: A Facilitator Training Workshop Guide and Free Speech & Inclusion on Campus: A Discussion Guide. The Campus Vote Project offers a State Student Guides to provide students with state-specific information such as registration deadlines and identification requirements. The Campus Election Engagement Project (CEEP) offers the Campus Electoral Engagement Self-Assessment – a tool designed to allow campuses to assess the following areas on their respective campuses: campus commitment, student voter registration, student education on candidates and electoral issues, and mobilizing students to vote. The Vote Everywhere Ambassador Handbook also provides a wealth of information and resources that campuses can utilize.

5. Develop Appropriate Campus Guidelines

Draft language that works for your campus to clearly outline policies that affect both internal and external audiences.

How this looks on our campus:

Our Council on Civic Engagement developed a series of guidelines to help foster the deepening of engagement on our campus. These guidelines have proven especially helpful to steer efforts and share with on-campus and off-campus organizations:

Guidelines for Political Activities
Guidelines for Student Demonstrations

 6. Voting is a Starting Place, But Democratic Engagement is the Broader Goal

Move beyond voting into deeper civic and political engagement initiatives.

How this looks on our campus:

Building an infrastructure that allows students to register to vote and cast their ballots is crucial but was only the beginning for our campus. We worked to continue the momentum started with voting efforts and enhance a campus framework that ultimately allows students to gain a deeper understanding of how government works, to develop the necessary skills to engage in civil discourse across political divides and to participate fully in our democracy. It is important that these civic and political engagement efforts exist in both curricular and co-curricular arenas. Our new Active Citizen Series was developed by the Elon Political Engagement Work Group to continue our work, especially during non-election years. This series was intentionally designed to cultivate the next generation of informed leaders who will help strengthen communities and shape our democracy.

We hope that some of these lessons learned on our campus may help inform discussions and planning on your campus. Remember that what works for one campus does not necessarily work for all, but continuing to share best practices with one another through our common connection with The Andrew Goodman Foundation is important as we all take steps to move our campuses forward in this work.

About the Author

Bob Frigo is the Associate Director of the Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement and Campus Champion at Elon University in North Carolina.