Students gather from across New England to talk civic engagement

A group of Middlebury students from both the Vermont Campus and the Middlebury Institute of International studies in Monterey, Calif., brainstormed about the college’s strategic plan to raise the number of Middlebury students who vote in the next election. The plan is part of the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge model. Photo by Kailee Brickner-McDonald

RIPTON — With the next presidential election a year away, a group of Middlebury students and staff is already hard at work crafting a plan to increase student voter participation.

This weekend, they had some help in their efforts at the NESCAC Votes Summit at Middlebury’s Bread Loaf campus. There, more than 30 students, faculty and staff from eight of the 11 schools in the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) gathered to share strategies for boosting civic engagement.

Ashley Laux, the program director at Middlebury’s Center for Community Engagement, helped organize the summit as part of the NESCAC Votes challenge. The challenge, which is based on the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge model, started last spring when Middlebury President Laurie Patton and Bowdoin President Clayton Rose emailed their conference counterparts and invited them to devote resources to increase voter turnout on campus.

According to Laux, the goal of the summit was for students and staff at similar schools to learn from each other as they work toward the same goal. 

“There is great value in taking the time to pause from our daily work and do a deep dive into shared electoral engagement efforts,” she said. “The summit was a great chance to reflect as a team and focus on our plans.”

As part of the ALL IN model, each campus must have a formal plan to engage students in the democratic process by the end of this semester. The plans will then be implemented in the year leading up to the next election.

Since students lead much of the democratic engagement efforts on college campuses, the summit also focused on how students can promote voting among their peers. 

Historically, college students have low turnout rates at the polls. According to the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement, only 48% of eligible students at participating schools voted in the 2016 presidential election, while turnout nationwide was 60% that year. While this trend appears to have shifted somewhat — the same study showed student voting went up more than the national average did during the 2018 midterms — students still voted at a lower rate than the national turnout.

The goal of the NESCAC Votes challenge is to raise those numbers by identifying and addressing barriers that keep students from voting. 

According to Andrew Lardie, the associate director for service and leadership at Bowdoin College and a summit co-organizer, students face a number of obstacles in the voting process. These include external barriers, such as policies that either intentionally or unintentionally keep students from the polls. Lardie said students also often feel unprepared to cast a ballot.

“Younger voters are more likely to feel like it’s overwhelming to try to figure out how to vote,” he said. “They feel like they’re not engaged enough with news and politics to make an informed decision and they don’t want to be irresponsible voters.”

Amalia Herren-Lage, who grew up in Middlebury and is now a sophomore at Bates College in Maine, said that some students can feel isolated from the impact of elections, especially at small residential colleges.

“It’s really easy to get wrapped up in your campus bubble because everything is sort of taken care of for you while you’re at school,” she said. “Obviously this depends on the student, some people have way more responsibilities than others do, but I think it’s easy to think that everything that matters is just in your world at school.”

Students at NESCAC schools also face certain logistical challenges when they try to vote because a large number want to vote absentee in their home states. This also makes it hard for student organizers across the NESCAC Votes coalition, as they try to help students navigate different deadlines and rules.

According to Jen Domagal-Goldman, executive director of the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge and also a summit co-organizer, the frequent use of absentee ballots presents difficulties not found in other athletic conferences that have implemented the ALL IN model, including at schools in the Big Ten and Southern Conference.

“Compared to the conferences we’ve been working with so far, most of the students here are from out of state, which means that there’s a lot more pressure to know a lot more about deadlines and elections and processes for other states and not just locally,” Domagal-Goldman said.

However, she also noted that the small size of many NESCAC schools may make it easier to change both policies and cultural norms around voting and increase student turnout. She also said this has a larger impact than just one election, because studies show that when young people vote they are more likely to continue to do so throughout their lives.

Many of the summit attendees spoke about their belief that colleges and universities have a responsibility to help students overcome barriers, whether they are personal or systemic, and promote voting as a civic duty. 

“We are educational institutions and you have to learn how to be a citizen, it doesn’t just happen by itself, it’s not just a matter of personality. It’s a matter of being educated with an understanding of the stakes and with a certain set of values,” Lardie said. “The demographic that votes at the lowest rate is the youngest people in the country and the youngest people in the country are concentrated in colleges and universities. So if we want to have participation from under-represented demographics then we have to go where those people are. Colleges and universities are where they are.”

Abby Dennis, a Middlebury junior and  president of the campus club MiddVote, hopes that by using Middlebury’s newly developed plan she can educate students about the power of the youth vote.

“If college students voted and had extremely high turnout we would have a lot of power to decide elections, which is really exciting,” she said.  “Voting is important to me because I think when more people vote we have policies and politicians that reflect the will of the people and hopefully that pushes us toward more just policies than we have now.”

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Sarah Asch

About Sarah

Sarah Asch is an intern for VTDigger covering Burlington and Chittenden County. She recently graduated from Middlebury College where she studied English literature. Previously, she has worked at the Addison Independent, the Rutland Herald and the San Francisco Public Press. She is originally from Mill Valley, California.

Email: [email protected]

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