Cultivating civic engagement in a COVID-19 world

When the pandemic hit, StanfordVotes had to rapidly change its campaign to get out the student vote. Building a digitally-connected community has been a huge part of that shift.

At the start of 2020, Stanford students were busy generating enthusiasm around voting in the upcoming election by holding voter registration drives in White Plaza, knocking on dorm room doors and organizing other lively gatherings across campus.

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StanfordVotes - the non-partisan, university-wide, student-led effort - has developed a new outreach plan to help boost voter turnout among Stanford students.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and everything changed. Lives were disrupted and plans canceled - including the many in-person activities that StanfordVotes - the non-partisan, university-wide, student-led effort - had planned to help boost voter turnout among Stanford students.

But StanfordVotes’ student volunteers were undeterred by the new challenges posed by COVID-19. If anything, such turbulent times have only crystalized the vital role civic engagement plays in society, said StanfordVotes co-director Sean Casey, ’22.

"The coronavirus and everything that’s happened this year have made it clear for many people that helping others is important and that civic engagement is something that they really care a lot about," said Casey, who is a double English and economics major.

Casey and Liana Keesing, ’23, have spent their summer and early fall rethinking how to create a culture of civic engagement in a COVID-19 climate. While the pair have never actually met in-person, they call, text or Zoom with each other daily - Casey from his family home in South Bend, Indiana and Keesing from McLean, Virginia - to develop a new outreach plan focused on digital engagement and institutional outreach.

Getting out the vote

StanfordVotes - in partnership with the student group Stanford in Government (SIG) - was formed by a group of Stanford students, faculty and staff in 2018 in response to low voter turnout among eligible undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students in the 2014 and 2016 elections. According to data from the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement , turnout was about 48.1 percent in the 2016 general election, compared with an average of 50.4 percent among all higher education institutions nationally. In the 2014 midterm election, engagement was about 16.9 percent, or less than one in five eligible students voted.

In 2018, StanfordVotes volunteers also tabled in White Plaza, held a "Party at the Post Office" event and registered voters from dining halls. Through these various efforts, student turnout increased to 42.7 percent.

Ahead of the 2020 primaries, StanfordVotes ramped up efforts further by rolling out a campus-wide voter registration campaign by embedding TurboVote into the class registration process. When students log in to register for their fall classes through Axess, they are shown options to register to vote, change their voter address, request an absentee ballot or find their polling location.

Some of those efforts include a new website with registration links, deadlines and other non-partisan resources for students to learn about what is on their ballot this year.

"A large part of this for us is meeting students where they are and creating content that they will really be interested in seeing while hopefully getting some good voting information," said Keesing, a major in electrical engineering with minors in ethics in society and physics.

For example, to deal with the communication challenge presented by both the decentralized nature of the U.S. elections system and an undergraduate student body dispersed across the country, StanfordVotes launched an Instagram campaign that profiles individual students from each of the 50 states. Posts are accompanied with each state’s voting information, registration deadlines and other rules and regulations about absentee voting. A link to the state’s official election website is also provided.

Both Keesing and Casey emphasized the importance of tailoring messages to students. As part of that strategy, StanfordVotes has partnered with other campus organizations and units to deliver specific messages about why voting matters. For example, Keesing - who is also a student-athlete on the fencing team - connected with Stanford Athletics to create a campaign to reach 100 percent voter registration in the student-athlete community by Oct. 2.

Included in those efforts was a bespoke website intended for the student-athlete audience. The website highlights how athletics and politics can intersect on issues like the free speech rights of a professional or student-athletes and compensation, for example.

"It’s not just saying ’voting is important because of democracy,’ and stopping there," Keesing said. "These elected officials that you’re working with are going to be deciding things like should student athletes get paid and what should be done about an athlete’s name, image and likeness."

Other outreach among student-athletes included a message to the student-athlete community on National Voter Registration Day , as well as colorful badges and other materials that teams can use to digitally show off that they have accomplished total voter registration - like what the Women’s Basketball team recently posted on their team Instagram account.

"In trying to get students to vote, we want students to be hearing from people they like and people they respect," said Keesing.

That’s why StanfordVotes is also asking Stanford faculty and other university administrators to help get the vote out - even if it’s just taking a five-minute pause in class to encourage voting-eligible students to register to vote, check their voter registration or sign up for an absentee ballot through TurboVote , the digital voting registration platform Stanford has partnered with to help simplify the registration process for students.

This is just one of the four tips StanfordVotes suggest in their toolkit for faculty on how to encourage civic engagement among students in the 2020 election.

With so much life happening in the virtual world, Keesing has also created a variety of colorful Zoom backgrounds that faculty, staff and students can use to demonstrate their civic pride.

"It’s a symbolic way of saying, ’I care about civic engagement. This is part of my identity and this is part of Stanford,’" Keesing said.

Casey and Keesing hope that turning out the student vote in the general election is just the beginning of creating a culture of civic engagement at Stanford.

"It doesn’t just have to be electoral activities that we so often think of when we think of civic engagement. There’s a whole raft of ways to participate in and improve your community," said Casey, adding that students can engage in voter registration drives themselves, participate in a community-organized event or become a poll worker. He hopes that one day, Election Day could be recognized as a day of service or holiday to encourage even more engagement among students.

"Civic engagement is all about the willingness and desire to go out and improve the lives of the people around you and the community-at-large," Casey said.

StanfordVotes is run through the Stanford in Government (SIG) Civic Engagement Branch in collaboration with the Haas Center for Public Service, the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, the Office of the Vice Provost for Student Affairs, Stanford Libraries and has partnerships with the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU), the Office of the President, the Hoover Institution and Stanford Athletics.


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