The biggest hurdle that college students say they face when it comes to voting in national and local elections is a lack of practical information about politics, according to a recent survey by the Knight Foundation. In preparation for the 2020 election, dozens of organizations and initiatives have cropped up across the nation to close this information gap.
Voting Engagement Roundtable, a nonpartisan group of faculty, staff and students is providing some of this information to students at the University of Mississippi. The group was created in the fall of 2019 under the University of Mississippi Office of Community Engagement in coordination with Brent Marsh, the dean of students, in order to support and educate student voters.
The Roundtable has a goal of making Ole Miss a “Voter-Friendly Campus,” a designation awarded by the Campus Vote Project and the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. Mississippi State University is currently the only university in the state to hold the designation.
Erin Payseur Oeth, the project manager for community engagement, said a major part of the group’s goal is to help students through a voting process that can be intimidating and overwhelming.
“I do think it keeps a lot of college students from voting. Even if they’re interested in it,” Payseur Oeth said. “They have to go look everything up and try to get their questions answered themselves to figure out what they need to do. It’s time consuming, it can be complicated, it may not be easy to understand. All of those are things that can discourage people from following through.”
Some of the Roundtable’s 11 student ambassadors have virtual drop-in hours for students to get help filling out voter registration forms and absentee ballot requests. The ambassadors also give short presentations to classes on information that ranges from how to fill out a ballot correctly to pictures of an actual ballot like voters will see in November.
“Our voting ambassadors are really our hands and feet,” Payseur Oeth said. “They’re there to walk students through the registration piece, but also just as important, the absentee ballot piece.”
Voting ambassador, senior Jaycee Brown, also serves as their operations specialist. She assumes the duties of an ambassador while also coordinating class visits with professors that request them.
She said that students have shown interest during presentations, and many simply did not know what was required of them to vote.
“They don’t know that in Mississippi you have to fill out an application before you can even get a ballot, or that you have to have a very specific reason (to request an absentee ballot),” Brown said. “It’s been very engaging and kind of amazing to share that knowledge with someone.”
As a voting ambassador, Brown walked students through basic information about how to register to vote in Mississippi before the Oct. 5 deadline, but she now explains to students some of the topics being put to a vote, including the new state flag and medical marijuana resolution.
Through all of this, Brown said she is serious about remaining non-partisan in her presentations, and she hopes for students to be as educated as possible on what they’re voting for.
“We have to know who we’re voting for and the policies that they want to have or want to implement in office,” Brown said. “We’re trying to get out of that party line thing. Like, ‘I’m gonna vote Democrat because my family’s a Democrat. I’m gonna vote Republican because my family is Republican.’”
The Roundtable also plans to provide shuttles to and from the polls on Election Day for students registered in Lafayette County in an effort to increase voter turnout.
Efforts to educate college students, like those displayed by The Roundtable, are being practiced on the national level more and more every year.
Ciarra Malone, the Georgia state coordinator for the Campus Vote Project, said she has been busier than ever over the past several weeks working with the organization to educate college voters before the polls close.
“Specifically in this election year, it’s extremely important,” Malone said. “College students are the largest voting bloc right now in the United States, so their votes can completely swing the election.”
The Campus Vote Project has a goal of working with over 250 college campuses to remove the barriers that marginalized groups face when trying to vote. A major part of that plan is to help make reforms that empower students with the information they need to register to vote.
One way The Project works with universities is through “democracy fellows.” Students are educated about topics including voter laws, policy reform and misinformation. Democracy fellows spread this information among their peers and help prepare the campus.
“There are a lot of restrictions, depending on what state you’re in,” Malone said. “We like to put down the misconception that young people don’t want to vote by simply understanding that there are a lot of barriers in the way of young people being able to cast their ballot.
The varying state-specific rules surrounding voting may be a big deterrent to college age voters. The Project provides a map of the U.S. on their website with voting guides and the different requirements to vote in each state.
“A lot of people will go to the ballot or they’ll go to the polls, and then something happens,” Malone said. “They’re not able to cast their ballot because they didn’t know about the big registration deadlines or specific ID laws.”
Social media has proved to be a catalyst for voter turnout, with younger demographics publicizing and encouraging their peers to go to the polls. Malone said this access to information has empowered people and allowed them to see that they can make a difference in their community.
“I think a lot of times people underestimate the power that young people have in elections, and the fact that they really will get out there and vote and hold their elected leaders accountable for the change that they want to see,” Malone said. “I think that the more young people understand the power that they have in selection, and what the people in these elected offices have the power to do to change their communities, they’ll be more likely to be engaged.”