Vote Everywhere Promising Practices: Institutionalizing Voter Registration in the Classroom
Vote Everywhere’s promising practices are a key set of recommendations for cultivating civic engagement and access on campus and ultimately sustaining inclusive and equitable campus cultures. This is the first post in a Q&A series with Vote Everywhere Campus Champions about our promising practices and how to implement them on campus.
A Q&A with Monica Clarke, Vote Everywhere Campus Champion at Alabama A&M University
Since joining the Vote Everywhere program for the Fall 2017 semester, the Alabama A&M University (AAMU) Vote Everywhere team has registered a stunning 1,810 students to vote, who represent 60% of the total student population of 6,001 students. The team has done so primarily through incorporating voter registration—and a voter education curriculum—into courses for first-year students. Known as “institutionalization,” this promising practice is so successful because it is embedded in institutions’ existing structures or processes.
By institutionalizing voter registration into first-year courses, the AAMU team has ensured that new students are able to participate in democratic life in their campus community from the beginning of their collegiate experiences. Envisioning a future in which all AAMU students are registered to vote, the Vote Everywhere team will continue to register each incoming class.
Learn how the AAMU Vote Everywhere team implemented this promising practice by reading our Q&A with Campus Champion Monica Clarke below.
What led the Vote Everywhere team at Alabama A&M University to pursue institutionalizing voter registration in first-year courses?
The university understands the importance of voting, but more importantly, we needed a platform to educate: to introduce students to voting history, processes, and laws and encourage students not only to have voices but to speak their voices. We agreed that the [classroom] approach would be most beneficial; therefore, introducing freshmen [to voting] through Orientation 102 seemed perfect. Orientation 102 class gave us the platform that we needed to reach 1,800 freshmen students.
How did you and the Vote Everywhere team implement this promising practice? What partnerships or resources did you engage?
I researched best practices and created a working curriculum. The curriculum was difficult but necessary. Students got to read, watch “telling” documentary clips, reflect and write, then discuss their feelings and thoughts. Students asked questions that led to more discussions and research on the struggles African Americans faced in order to get the rights that we often take for granted today. Next, I met with Orientation 102 instructors to introduce the curriculum and gained their support. I knew this would be a monumental task, as I had over 30 sections of Orientation 102 classes to eventually register to vote. The instructors were hesitant but curious. Most had never taught about civil rights or our voting rights. I was asking them to do a lot. I needed them to be knowledgeable of voting rights, voting struggles, and voting history. I provided documentaries for them to review and free information from the Public Broadcasting Station (PBS). I enlisted the help of several community organizations and local leaders who were eager to speak and some who were just as eager to register students to vote. I also enlisted the help of university professionals to share their experiences and to help with the education piece. This was a logistical nightmare, but it was fun and successful.
What challenges or obstacles did you face, and how did you overcome these to achieve your goal?
The obstacles were numerous.
First, I had several instructors who were not comfortable teaching about civil rights history or voting rights. I had to do mini trainings with the instructors—to go over voter registration forms, civil rights, and voting laws—and I also had to utilize free PBS classroom materials, as well as videos. If instructors were still uncomfortable, I brought in guest speakers to help.
Second, funding was not available for resources, so I had to improvise. I used free materials from PBS and enhanced the questions to fit a college level. I solicited freebies from local organizations and restaurants.
Third, AAMU has too many Orientation 102 classes for the Ambassadors and me to register. I had to enlist help from community groups. The community groups had to be trained before they could enter the classrooms.
Fourth, we previously experienced voter registration forms including errors. To resolve this, I made folders for each class. The folders had the class roster, voting instructions, voter registration cards, and FAQs inside. I labeled each folder with the instructor’s name and course number. Students had to sign an attendance form as well. When we found errors, I gave the forms back to the instructors to get the student to correct the application and return it to me. In the past, I would have had to contact the student to get the correction done.
Fifth, students had questions that the person registering them could not answer. I placed a form in the packet for questions. I contacted the student later via phone or email and answered questions.
Since implementing this promising practice, what impact has it had on your campus?
The impact has been enormous. Students are more engaged in the voting process. Students showed up to vote and were angry when issues occurred that hindered their need to participate in the voting process. In fact, during the 2018 General Election, we increased student voting by an astonishing four times at on our-campus polling place. I think the education part really had the most significant impact.
In addition, the university and the community took notice. The university got involved and supported additional efforts. Finally, political leaders started to notice the activity on campus. I think the students on Alabama A&M’s campus will become a priority for future elections.
What advice do you have for other colleges and universities trying to institutionalize voter registration in classrooms?
Be ready for everything. For us, the enthusiasm brought national attention, and we were not ready for that. We were not prepared for the engagement at that level. When your students get excited and have momentum, you must be able to move with them.
Now that you have achieved this promising practice, what opportunities will the Vote Everywhere team at AAMU explore next to advance civic engagement on your campus?
We are working on a new plan. The bar was set pretty high. The university has implemented a Civic Engagement Team to help prepare and assist with the upcoming voting momentum. The Ambassadors and I are putting together a voting manual and improving the voting curriculum for the classes. Our goal is to be better prepared and keep the momentum going strong.
By institutionalizing voter registration in first-year courses, the AAMU Vote Everywhere team not only registered and educated student voters but also created a process that ensures accuracy and is sustainable for years to come. In forthcoming posts in our Q&A series, we’ll explore other Vote Everywhere promising practices, including additional methods of institutionalizing voter registration.
About The Authors
Margaret Sasser is AGF’s Program and Communications Manager. Margaret is passionate about civil rights issues and helping students to become active and engaged members of their communities.
Monica Clarke, M.Ed., is the Freshman Academy Service Learning Coordinator and an Adjunct Professor in the English department at Alabama A&M University.