The Roots of Change at LSU
They improved voting laws and expanded access to education. Today, hundreds of thousands reap the harvest.
Louisiana State University joined Vote Everywhere in 2014, establishing the only organization devoted to civic engagement on campus, Geaux Vote LSU. Within two years, their work transformed student life across the state and impacted students for generations to come.
Valencia Richardson ‘16, founding Ambassador at LSU, attributes her team’s success to the resource and guidance provided by the Andrew Goodman Foundation. “Two years ago, LSU was one of the only schools without an established organization focused on civic engagement. In a lot of ways, it felt like starting from scratch,” she says. “We had the extensive resources of AGF to help guide us through the learning curve and onto making a difference on our campus.”
That difference came within months of joining the program. When the state faced a higher education funding crisis, the Ambassadors were instrumental in bringing student voices into the state-wide debate. They published op-eds urging legislators to consider student opinions, and held a forum that brought together higher education officials from across the state to answer student questions about the budget.
In the spring of 2015, their campaign culminated in a march that united more than 1,000 students, community members, and elected officials at the steps of the State Capitol. The march made state and national news, and helped save Louisiana public universities from devastating cuts. “The higher ed funding campaign was the first action we organized on campus,” says Valencia. “Our campaign was, in part, successful because we built powerful coalitions and strategically used AGF resources. Ultimately, we proved our credibility as advocates for students.”
The following year, with the 2016 elections on the horizon, the Ambassadors focused their efforts on improving state voting laws and promoting voter turnout. Based on conversations with their peers, the Vote Everywhere team at LSU identified polling place accessibility and voter identification requirements as two areas for improvement.
“Thousands of students do not have a Louisiana ID or driver’s license and they could not use their student IDs to vote,” says Madison Melancon ’18, who joined the Vote Everywhere team to help students become involved in the political process. “However, our research showed that student ID as voter ID was not only a best practice to encourage turnout, but was commonplace across the nation.”
Working with a State Representative and LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication, the Ambassadors commissioned and lobbied for HB940, a bill that now requires Louisiana public universities to design student identification cards that fulfill voter identification requirements. In addition, the team helped pass HCR100, a resolution that calls for an on-campus polling location at a centralized LSU location.
To support each bill’s passage, the Ambassadors launched a multi-prong public relations campaign and testified as expert witnesses during numerous legislative committee hearings; in one hearing, Valencia was even publicly recognized for her work on campus.
Throughout the semester, the Vote Everywhere team showcased the power of a nonpartisan student-led and university-supported civic engagement initiative. From the Secretary of State, to the University President, the Ambassadors united diverse stakeholders in support of student engagement in the political process.
The Vote Everywhere team laid a foundation for higher voter turnout this fall. Having improved voter accessibility, both on campus and across the state, future Ambassadors can now focus more on outreach and engagement and less on breaking down legislated barriers.
LSU is now working on making the necessary changes in time for the fall 2016 semester, while other public schools have until 2019 to fully implement the new student IDs. “I’m incredibly proud of the work we have done so far,” says Valencia. “I graduated before I got to see this work come to fruition, but these last two years have created the groundwork necessary to continued growth.”
Valencia, a 2016 Fulbright Scholar, now looks back at LSU knowing she left a powerful and effective team behind, spearheaded by second-generation Ambassadors Madison and Kaylin.