CEEP made a powerful impact in 2008 and hoped to do the same this year, but what we've accomplished in 2012 exceeded our every expectation. We believe our efforts contributed significantly to helping youth turnout equal or exceed that of 2008 despite greater political cynicism, widespread obstacles to voting, and, surprisingly, less outreach to young voters by the campaigns. As our lead Ohio staffer recently said, “The schools really appreciate our resources. We haven’t gotten a single negative reaction, just gratitude for the resources we're providing.” To see highlighted 2012 state success click here!
We began 2012 by creating key nonpartisan resources that drew on the lessons of 2008 and on suggestions from our state and national partners. We then added new ones as schools described additional needs, and partners came up with powerful new approaches. We started with a checklist of ways schools could begin engaging their students in the spring, updated it over the summer to a major comprehensive list of our six key engagement approaches, and then added a summary of ways schools could act to make a difference on the eve of the election. We created other critical resources like summaries of state voting and registration rules, guides to candidate positions, and guides for promoting dialogue on key issues. Schools said our timing in releasing these resources was perfect, and that each fit a critical need.
They also really appreciated the article on overcoming student political cynicism that CEEP founder, Paul Loeb, wrote with advisory board chair, UCLA’s Alexander Astin, and noted education author Parker Palmer. Helping students recognize how electoral and non-electoral approaches to change can complement each other, we placed it first in InsideHigherEd, one of the two key national higher education websites (they’d already quoted us in a news report on Campuses and Voter ID). We then sent it out to our network and to academic listservs totaling 30,000-40,000 administrators, faculty, and staff. It also made the front page of Huffington Post and got distributed by the AFL-CIO’s national network—two days after Loeb finished it, a student working on an Illinois congressional campaign told me he’d already received it from them and passed it on.
CONVERSATIONS AND TECH TOOLS:
CEEP also distributed high-tech resources, from Rock The Vote’s online registration tool, to new approaches like TurboVote’s Netflix model for helping students to participate. The VoterProtection SmartPhone App empowered students to verify their registration, register to vote, look up their polling place, review state voting rules and regulations, and contact election protection experts when problems arose. CEEP set up Facebook and Twitter templates, created a highly useful website from scratch, and created our CampusVoteMap so we could connect with campus contacts who came in through other higher ed lists and so they could connect with others at their schools.
But no matter how good our resources and suggestions, CEEP had to get them to the people who would actually implement them on each campus. That required personal conversations. Our efforts to coach and guide campus staffers were critical, as one person led us to another and then to another, while we helped them build the coordinated efforts essential to get students engaged. As in 2008, outreach built on the strong ongoing relationships that the state Campus Compact affiliates had created in most of our states, and we worked directly with the schools in states where this wasn’t feasible. The Compacts also provided key networks to find the skilled and energetic outreach staffers we needed. These staffers then followed up until they found the right people at any given campus, then continued to work with them to implement our suggestions as effectively as possible. Their initiative, creativity, and persistence were key to our success.
Our outreach wasn’t always easy, particularly in states without existing Compacts. Our Virginia coordinator had to approach a dozen people before she finally found the right contact at the 75,000-student Northern Virginia Community College, but then made a significant impact in turning students out. Throughout, we emphasized how persistence paid off and ended up engaging key contacts at nearly every major school in the states we targeted.
PASSING ON THE STORIES: Our networks also allowed us to relay the stories of powerful new initiatives as individual schools came up with them. Virginia Commonwealth students connected with residents of a nearby African American senior home, registered them to vote, and helped turn out at the polls. Ohio State students registered often-ignored campus workers like janitors, food service workers and housekeepers. In all cases, we passed on the ideas so other schools could follow suit, while integrating these ideas into our blog and Facebook updates.
Many Florida schools had given up on doing registration drives because new laws levied major penalties on third party groups that made even the smallest mistakes in registering voters, like failing to turn in registrations within 48 hours. We arranged a webinar for 18 major Florida schools with the lawyers of Fair Elections Legal Network (FELN), a major partner of ours, and they resumed registering students even before a judge threw out the most draconian policies. CEEP arranged similar webinars with FELN in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Colorado, and got similarly enthusiastic responses from schools, facing their own new daunting and confusing new ID laws. To complement the webinars, we worked with FELN, The Brennan Center, and the League of Women Voters to create our own concise election-rule summaries in each of our targeted states, with a focus on what campuses could do to help meet the new requirements. Our state offices then distributed them to all of their schools, who in turn promoted them to their students. It was a great example of how CEEP continually multiplied its reach.
SURMOUNTING THE OBSTACLES:
Throughout, schools told us again and again how valuable our efforts were. When Loeb was speaking at North Carolina’s Western Piedmont Community College in late October, the Vice President of Student Affairs described our resources as “perfectly timed, arriving exactly when needed.”
We’d long been planning to distribute the nonpartisan voter guides that Rock the Vote was intending to create, but instead they ended up promoting PollVault, which didn’t provide a concise summary of candidate stands. The League of Women Voters also shifted to an online interactive guide, which meant that no one had created the kind of basic nonpartisan document that simply compared where two given candidates stood on key issues. Given that schools were hungry for this kind of resource, we worked with another partner, VoteSmart, to pull together a concise nonpartisan Presidential Guide and comparable guides for Senate and House races.
Not only did our schools distribute these widely (some emailed them out to every student, others posted them in prominent locations, others worked with their campus newspapers to adapt them), but they were also widely distributed by other educational groups — for instance, the president of the association of Historically Black Colleges and Universities distributed them to all of his schools. When we posted these guides on Huffington Post, they appeared at or near the top of the relevant Google searches. We worked through the election’s final days, creating and distributing posters on Wisconsin’s same day registration rules, coaching our campuses on getting every eligible student out to vote, and teaming up with the Election Protection Coalition to protect students from being turned away at the polls.
BUILDING ON OUR MOMENTUM—CONTINUING FORWARD:
In fact, the Campus Election Engagement Project played such an important role that we’ve decided to convert it from a project that starts from scratch during Presidential elections to one that plays an ongoing role engaging a new generation in America’s critical public choices. That means working in the 2013-2014 off-year election cycle to involve students in key upcoming contests for House and Senate seats, in statewide races like Governor and Secretary of State (in charge of voting rules), and in all the local races that affect their lives.
Our challenge will be to help reverse a pattern where student turnout drops by as much as two thirds from presidential to non-presidential elections, as it did in state after state between 2008 and 2010, leaving 800,000 fewer students participating just between Ohio and Florida. Shifting to an ongoing project will give us far more lead time to develop critical resources and to build on all the powerful relationships we developed in 2012--both with individual schools and with our state and national partners.