The 2008 election saw record numbers of voter registration and turnout among college students. The Obama campaign played a crucial role in this, but many of the voter registration strategies for on-campus turnout were pioneered by college students themselves. Looking towards the 2012 election, it is useful to look at the various strategies used by colleges and universities of differing size and focus.
Cumberland County serves as a decent case study. Home to Shippensburg, Dickinson, and Messiah, a look at the three will provide a basic model for how College Democrats at each institution should plan for 2012. In 2008, the campus voice spoke loudly. Registration tactics leading up to 2012 can either sustain that voice or mute it.
Shippensburg University, with 6,500 students, does a great job at getting all of their freshmen students registered at the same time in a very efficient manner. Their strategy, called “ShipVotes,” plays off the course requirements at Ship. Every first year student is required to take a core group of courses, and each professor who is teaching a core course is provided voter registration forms and offers voter registration forms to the students, who are shown the proper manner in which to fill them out. Thus, every first year is efficiently registered to vote on campus through ShipVotes. Each year, a professor leads the effort in conjunction with the College Democrats and College Republicans. This way, it is both non-partisan and faculty coordinated.
Messiah College is a private Christian college located in Grantham with 2,900 students. During the 2008 election, the College Democrats and Republicans held voter registration drives in which they would place tables in highly populated areas of campus and register students as they pass by. Although the College Democrats chapter has since closed, the Messiah College Republicans continue to register voters before every election. Messiah College also makes available a link to the PA voter registration website on their school’s residential life page, stating, almost begrudgingly, that “[f]ederal law requires Messiah College make voter registration forms available to every student.”
Dickinson College considered modeling their registration plan after ShipVotes, but DickVotes didn’t seem like the right title. Rather, they have a “Rush the Vote” campaign, named for their founder Benjamin Rush. They set up tables in the student union building, and “dorm storm” residence halls pestering evasive freshmen to register. All students who register to vote do so at the same address so that every student’s polling place is in the same location. This way, the Student Senate can provide vans to drive students to the same polling location regardless of where on campus they are actually living. Dickinson’s results are admittedly mixed. Unlike Shippensburg, they do not have mandatory first-year courses, so it is much harder to reach all the freshmen at the same time. More effort is required for fewer registrations.
From looking the above three institutions, it is evident that each campus has a different model. Shippensburg produces high registration volumes by utilizing their first year curriculum. Messiah College prefers to set up tables in high traffic areas leading up to the election, and Dickinson College combines dorm storming and Election Day transportation to drive up voting.
The perfect model, it seems, would combine all of these elements. Most importantly, though, is modeling your plan after your particular college or university. Geography, curriculum, and manpower all go into the registration equation. No strategy will work on every campus, but every campus can learn from the tactics of others.
The youth vote made the difference in 2008, stayed home in 2010, and must be rebuilt for 2012. Voter registration is the fundamental first step in rebuilding.