The Student Vote: Time-Tested Tactics, Adapted for the Times

by on September 29, 2020

Creative Student Outreach Overcomes Empty Campuses

Day after day, we’re seeing stories of college campuses trying, then failing, to start in-person classes, then readjusting their plans. Against this chaotic backdrop, Americans are preparing for one of the most consequential elections of our time.

Given everything that is going on, you might well be wondering: how are young people even going to vote?

The Student PIRGs’ New Voters Project is gearing up to help 50,000 students register to vote and make more than 250,000 personalized peer-to-peer Get out the Vote (GOTV) contacts. And this year we’ve retooled our entire operation to run digitally.

Our team of organizers are working with students “on” 100 campuses in 16 states: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin.

Our all-digital effort is built on a successful field model that since 1984 has helped 2 million students register to vote and made more than 3 million GOTV contacts. Analysis of our work in 2018 showed that of the college students we helped register to vote:

  • 48 percent were first-time registrants
  • 48 percent were students of color
  • 59 percent cast their ballots in the election, 20 percent higher than the college-age population.

Reach every part of campus
Studies show that the most effective way to get someone both to register and to vote is a personal touch from people they know and trust. So we’ve gone to work to build relationships with and mobilize campus influencers—from faculty advisors to sorority presidents, university chancellors to cultural club leaders—to help give young people the information they need to register and turn out to vote.

Thanks to our work nationwide this fall:

  • Faculty have agreed to email more than 200,000 students about the election
  • Campuses enrolling more than 500,000 students have agreed to send campus-wide emails, texts and/or push notifications on campus phone apps about the election as a result of our work
  • More than 400 faculty, campus staff, administrators, and student group leaders have joined our local vote coalitions

A legion of student vote ambassadors
One thousand students from across the nation completed our summer volunteer and internship program, retooled for the remote world, and we’ve already hired more than 1,000 interns for our fall program. These interns and volunteers will reach out to tens of thousands of their peers to commit them to vote and get their peers involved. Our relational organizing effort has the potential to activate hundreds of thousands of students around the country.


Our team is mobilizing students like Caitlin Ukpong. Caitlin, a student at Howard University, was hired to participate in our summer internship program. This summer, Caitlin, along with 40 interns working in Michigan, partnered with the Secretary of State’s office to educate thousands of students how to vote by mail. At one event Caitlin organized, volunteers collected over 400 pledges to vote in a matter of hours. Caitlin then partnered with local NAACP youth and college chapters to run a series of educational events leading up to the online voter registration deadline to vote in Michigan’s primary elections.


Protecting the right to vote
In all our states, we’re connecting with the offices of Secretaries of State and local registrars to make sure students can vote no matter what challenges get in the way.Across the country, we’re partnering with civic engagement organizations and projects to help mobilize as many young voters as possible, including ALL IN Challenge; Ask Every Student; the California Secretary of State’s California University and College Ballot Bowl; Election Protection Coalition; NAACP; the National Study of Learning, Voting & Engagement; National Voter Registration Day; Rock the Vote; Student Learn, Students Vote; Vote Early Day; When We All Vote; and the State Voices network.For National Voter Registration Day on Tuesday, September 22, the New Voters Project undertook a major push to promote our online student voter registration tool, We hosted virtual parties and events to help students register to vote, posted to social media, and sent our volunteers campaign materials like face masks, virtual Zoom backgrounds, social media graphics, posters, and shirts so they can effectively promote the tool to their social media followers.Our project will evolve as we respond to events in our campus communities moving forward, while prioritizing the safety of our staff and students. If you have any ideas or feedback on engaging young people in the election, please let me know.Manny Rin is the Director of the Student PIRGs’ New Voters Project


Filed under: National Politics

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