(WASHINGTON) — Just weeks before the first midterm primary elections, the Department of Education issued a “Dear Colleague” letter reminding postsecondary institutions throughout the country of their legal requirement to distribute voter registration materials and provide voter education.
The 1998 Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965 began requiring colleges and universities to distribute voter registration information to all enrolled students, but according to Elizabeth Bennion, campus director of the American Democracy Project at Indiana University, South Bend — a university initiative that supports civic engagement for undergraduates — very few campuses were actually doing so.
“This is really a great time just to remind campuses of, you know, their responsibility under the Higher Education Act under federal law, as we head into the primaries and midterm elections,” said Clarissa Unger, co-founder and executive director of the Students Learn Students Vote Coalition — the largest nonpartisan coalition dedicated to increasing student voter participation.
Nonprofit coalitions like SLSV exist to serve and support universities as they fulfill their civic engagement requirement.
Katie Montgomery, director of government relations at Cuyahoga Community College, said the college prepares students for primaries by advertising a voter registration day at nearly 70 campus locations. Students are encouraged to have a “voting plan,” whether they are voting in-person, early, or on Election Day, she said.
“Once you register to vote and vote once, you’re more likely to be tagged as a likely voter in the massive databases that campaigns run and that nonprofits run,” said Adam Gismondi, director of impact at the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University. “So then, you’re more likely to be contacted in future elections and reminded about your social responsibility to vote and you’re more likely to be asked for your vote by candidates. That actually perpetuates your involvement.”
The letter, issued by Michelle Asha Cooper, acting assistant secretary for the Office of Postsecondary Education, strongly encourages higher education institutions to make preparations over the next several months to fulfill their legal requirement this election cycle. It also includes a clarification that federal work-study funds may be used for voter registration activities on- or off-campus.
“One of the reasons why the Department of Education issuing this letter is so important is they have the reach of all the campuses, which is over 2,000 in the whole country,” Unger said, calling it a step toward greater “equity.”
A reminder like this has not been sent out to colleges and universities since 2013, said Unger, noting her coalition has been calling for one since 2016. Instead, she said, groups like Students Learn Students Vote, a nonpartisan network focused on “student voter participation,” have been helping to educate students while some institutions themselves do not.
Part of the problem has been ambiguity. While the Higher Education Act says colleges and universities have to make a “good faith effort” to educate students, according to Unger it doesn’t specify who at a university should be responsible for handling that role. Her coalition has been pushing the Department of Education to incentivize campuses to participate and give some form of recognition to campuses that already have voter education initiatives in place, she said.
Joy Fulkerson, director of Leadership and Civic Engagement at East Tennessee State University, said the letter helps provide “encouragement” to continue doing the work.
“We’re holding regular voter registration drives and looking at our data in terms of who’s voting and who’s not, and thinking about ways in which we can engage particular populations of students,” said Fulkerson. “We’ve been out tabling and visiting organization meetings or classrooms or residence halls to really make students know about the opportunity to participate in democracy.”
Youth voter participation is generally trending upward, with 50% of young people ages 18-29 voting in the 2020 presidential election. That was an 11-point increase from 2016’s 39% youth turnout and “likely one of the highest rates of youth electoral participation since the voting age was lowered to 18,” according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
It also estimated that voter participation among eligible young people more than doubled in midterm elections from 2014 to 2018 — increasing from 13% to 28%. Data on youth voter participation from the most recent midterm primaries is not yet available.
In addition to educating young voters, college-based voter education programs can also provide meaningful experiences for students who participate through work-study or as volunteers.
Sebastián Canales, a student advisory board member with the Campus Vote Project at Cleveland State University, which partners with the school’s Office of Civic Engagement, said being a democracy fellow with the organization has been “one of the most inspiring, motivating, life-changing experiences” that he’s had in college. As a fellow, he educates peers on registering to vote and navigating their ballots.
He cast his own first ballot in the 2016 presidential election alongside his dad, a first-time voter from Honduras who had just been granted citizenship. He said he and his father felt “lost” in the voting process, but they were able to get through it because they had each other’s support.
“My dad came from a country where voting was not necessarily encouraged, there was a lot of voter suppression, a lot of ballot-box stuffing and we would have conversations about that. He would say, ‘You know, we live in America where your voice should be heard,'” Canales said.
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