How Tech Is Getting College Students to Turn Out for Election Day

This hasn’t been the most exciting election season. But a mobile and online push is helping get college kids out to polls.

Tobias Nichols, 2, yawns while waiting for his father, Dan Nichols, to vote on Election Day on November 5, 2013 in Brooklyn.
National Journal
Rebecca Nelson
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Rebecca Nelson
Nov. 3, 2014, 4:17 p.m.

On Tues­day morn­ing, MacK­en­zie Bills’s cell phone will buzz, alert­ing her to a text. The mes­sage, a simple re­mind­er, will dir­ect the Simpson Col­lege ju­ni­or to a polling place in In­di­an­ola, Iowa, just across the street from cam­pus: Go vote.

The text isn’t from her par­ents, or a par­tic­u­larly civically en­gaged friend. Tur­boVote, a di­git­al, non­par­tis­an ser­vice that stream­lines voter re­gis­tra­tion for col­lege stu­dents, sends per­son­al­ized texts to the 80,000 co-eds who have re­gistered and re­ques­ted them. More than 200 col­leges, in­clud­ing Ohio State and Stan­ford, have pur­chased ac­cess to the plat­form, which is free for stu­dents.

“The pur­pose is to make it as pain­less as pos­sible for stu­dents to re­gister to vote,” said Dav­id Kle­ment, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the In­sti­tute for Stra­tegic Policy Solu­tions at Flor­ida’s St. Peters­burg Col­lege. “Know­ing how many young people are tech-savvy and do everything on their cell phones or com­puters, it’s an elec­tron­ic plat­form.”

In a year where midterm races have lacked much ex­cite­ment, col­leges have found cre­at­ive ways to en­gage stu­dents in the vot­ing pro­cess through tech­no­logy they already use.

Bills, who is study­ing polit­ic­al sci­ence and in­ter­na­tion­al re­la­tions, needs no re­mind­er to vote. The founder and pres­id­ent of Simpson Votes, a cam­pus club that pro­motes civic en­gage­ment, she took ad­vant­age of Iowa’s early vot­ing last month. But the di­git­al nudge, she said, makes all the dif­fer­ence for her busy peers—es­pe­cially in a state where the out­come of a tight Sen­ate race could swing con­trol of Con­gress.

“Be­ing a col­lege stu­dent means we’re be­ing pulled a mil­lion dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tions,” Bills said. “That ex­tra re­mind­er is what will get us to the polls.”

In Geor­gia, des­pite en­ergy from an­oth­er high-stakes Sen­ate match­up, Uni­versity of North Geor­gia his­tory pro­fess­or Ren­ee Brick­er said it’s dif­fi­cult to rouse stu­dents to vote.

“The midterm is al­ways harder to get people ex­cited about,” said Brick­er, who co­ordin­ates the Tur­boVote pro­gram at UNG. “It’s like go­ing to church just on Christ­mas and East­er. The pres­id­en­tial elec­tion every four years is easy to get people ex­cited about, but the midterms are a little harder.”

That holds true across the coun­try. Com­pared with the 2012 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, where 45 per­cent of eli­gible 18-to-29-year-olds voted, the last midterm elec­tions, in 2010, saw a youth turnout rate of only 24 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for In­form­a­tion and Re­search on Civic Learn­ing and En­gage­ment.

Ad­min­is­trat­ors on UNG’s cam­pus in Dahlonega have tried a num­ber of tac­tics to en­gage stu­dents in the elec­tion, with hits and misses. While QR codes link­ing to the UNG Tur­boVote site were deemed ex­cess­ive, simple pop-up win­dows—ac­tiv­ated whenev­er a stu­dent logged in­to the uni­versity’s serv­er—were in­cred­ibly suc­cess­ful, al­beit an­noy­ing after a while, Brick­er said. The popups al­lowed stu­dents to re­gister on the spot, as well as sign up for text and email re­mind­ers to vote.

So­cial me­dia, too, has helped en­gage Face­book- and Twit­ter-ad­dicted col­lege stu­dents in state elec­tions. Bills has been pro­mot­ing the hasht­ags #Simpson­Votes and #IVoted in a grass­roots ef­fort at Simpson since early vot­ing star­ted in Septem­ber. Face­book posts and tweets flaunt civic en­gage­ment throughout so­cial net­works, en­cour­aging vot­ing among friend groups in a form of pos­it­ive peer pres­sure.

Simply vot­ing, however, isn’t the only en­dgame: Once stu­dents get to the polls, they need to be edu­cated about their de­cisions. To help stu­dents make in­formed choices, Bills sends out fact sheets on can­did­ates via Twit­ter and email, and Tur­boVote’s Elec­tion Day memos in­clude bal­lot pre­views with links to can­did­ates’ web­sites.

For self-starters who are just for­get­ful or busy, Tur­boVote’s di­git­al re­mind­ers come in handy. But oth­er stu­dents may need more of a push. When that comes from someone they trust, Sam Novey, Tur­boVote’s dir­ect­or of part­ner­ships, told Na­tion­al Journ­al, it has a much more mean­ing­ful im­pact.

On Na­tion­al Voter Re­gis­tra­tion Day, in Septem­ber, an email from UNG’s prov­ost en­cour­aging stu­dents to re­gister to vote res­ul­ted in more than 200 Tur­boVote sign-ups. And when John Boy­er, a pop­u­lar geo­graphy pro­fess­or at Vir­gin­ia Tech, emailed his stu­dents the link to the school’s Tur­boVote page, 600 stu­dents signed up in two days.

Novey said that, lo­gist­ic­ally, it was only pos­sible for Boy­er to have that in­flu­ence with help from tech­no­logy. It worked so well, though, be­cause stu­dents re­spect him.

“Tech­no­logy like Tur­boVote is de­signed to em­power lead­ers in cam­puses and com­munit­ies every­where to share vot­ing with their peers and with their stu­dents,” Novey said. “By tak­ing care of a lot of the de­tails, it em­powers folks to do what they’re uniquely situ­ated to do, which is use their re­la­tion­ships and their pas­sion and their com­mit­ment to demo­cracy to mo­bil­ize those around them to get to the polls.”

Di­git­al plat­forms com­ple­ment col­lege voter out­reach well, es­pe­cially in a stale elec­tion. Ul­ti­mately, though, it will take more pas­sion and stronger re­la­tion­ships to truly amp up col­lege turnout.

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