College students often face unique challenges and questions regarding the voting process. Many are young, voting for the first time, and have moved to a new place of residence for school.
Hosting a panel to address some of these experiences, Commissioner Ben Hovland spoke with eight local election officials from college towns about administering elections with significant student populations. To highlight the importance of outreach to younger voters, he started the conversation with “We know that voting is habit forming and critical to engage young voters and we need to ensure they have a positive experience.”
Included in the conversation were: Jacqueline Beaudry, City Clerk, City of Ann Arbor, Michigan; Derek Bowens, Director of Elections, Durham County, North Carolina; Molly Fitzpatrick, County Clerk and Recorder, Boulder County, Colorado; Brianna Lennon, County Clerk, Boone County, Missouri; Charlotte Sosebee, Director of Elections, Athens-Clark County Unified Government, Georgia; Lisa McGlaun, Election Assistant, Athens-Clark County Unified Government, Georgia; Jamie Shew, County Clerk and County Election Officer, Douglas County, Kansas; and Travis Weipert, County Auditor, Johnson County, Iowa.
Administering elections in college towns has several differences from areas without significant student populations. With many students from other states or from other jurisdictions within the state, local election officials have additional challenges maintaining voter rolls with such a mobile population and educating students about the voting process, which differs from state to state and from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. It's important for students to understand voting at their place of residence or the location of their school and make the decision early about where they wish to vote. “We're getting more and more provisional ballots from students who don't understand that the laws are different State by State. They're used to living in a state where you just show up and vote on election day, or you're automatically registered to vote. They don't understand that,” Jamie Shew pointed out.
Charlotte Sosebee elaborated, “You need to decide where you're going to register to vote because that's important. Are you going to register to vote at your parents' house, which may be out of state? Or are you going to register to vote in Georgia?”
Communication with students on all these potential obstacles for their voter registration and participating in elections is key, and the local election officials highlighted the importance of partnering with university administrators, professors and student groups. “One of the things that we've tried to do with our university... is ensuring that we're having regular communication with the administration and with student leaders... I think students need to hear every single year from these trusted leaders that there is an election. Here are the election laws. Here's how they apply to you,” Molly Fitzpatrick said.
The panelists spoke on these challenges and how their towns and jurisdictions have worked to navigate them.
Some best practices shared by the panelists for working in jurisdictions with college students:
Emphasize voter education efforts for the students, including highlighting laws, rules, and options and what those mean for them
Communicate not only with the students, but also with professors and other school faculty members; they can help you inform students
Work with campus partners directly, including the universities and colleges directly through faculty and administration, and with student groups, including athletic teams, Greek organizations, and student government
Monitor voter education engagement and tweak if needed based on real time feedback
Keep on top of fluctuating voter rolls as students move in and out, paying particular attention to address changes at the beginning and end of the school year
Be adaptive in methods for reaching out, for instance engaging on social media or other platforms particularly utilized by students
Considering having a satellite elections office or polling place on the campus for students
Hire students to serve as polling place volunteers