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By appointing vote coordinators and other leaders on college campuses, we can transform student participation in elections, writes Clarissa Unger.

Local leaders key to transforming our democracy

Unger is director of civic engagement for Young Invincibles, which seeks to mobilize young adults to advance solutions on higher education, health care, jobs and civic engagement.

Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would reform voting rights, campaign finance and government ethics. HR 1, the For the People Act, is widely regarded by democracy reform advocates as among the most important pieces of legislation since the Voting Rights Act. Importantly, the For the People Act includes a provision that would dramatically increase young adults' access to our registration and voting processes, transforming voter participation for years to come.

Building on a provision currently in the Higher Education Act, the For the People Act would ensure every college and university nationwide has a "campus vote coordinator" to answer students' questions about registering to vote, finding their polling location, and actually casting their ballot.

While this small step may ultimately seem insignificant, having a trusted messenger on campus to help students make their voices heard in an election makes sense when you consider the structural and psychological barriers students – who are often new to our voting process – face when voting. These challenges can include overestimating how long it takes to register, misunderstanding what they need to vote, or feeling that their vote will not impact the outcome of an election. All these barriers that can be overcome with the help of a trusted messenger.

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The inclusion of a campus vote coordinator on every campus would be a significant shift in how we approach promoting voter participation. To this point, most research on voter participation focuses on tactics that campaigns can use to turn voters out on Election Day: how many doors to knock on or how many mailers need to be sent to increase turnout enough for a certain candidate to win. Meanwhile, the media focuses on the personalities on the ballot, not on the people fueling change in their communities.

While this campaign-focused knowledge is helpful in some ways, it doesn't address the bigger picture of how we can dramatically increase voter participation and truly transform our democracy. Focusing our attention and resources on a local civic leader – such as campus vote coordinator – challenges us to think about elections in new and more genuine and inclusive ways.

This movement toward empowering local leaders can bring sustainable change to our communities, and we've already seen this model work through the successes of the Students Learn Students Vote Coalition.

We launched the SLSV Coalition – the nation's largest nonpartisan student voting network – in 2016. With nearly 400 nonpartisan partners reaching over 1,600 colleges and universities in all 50 states, the coalition equips college administrators, professors, students, and campus leaders – or campus vote coordinators – with tools and resources to ensure that every eligible member of their campus community participates in elections.

The SLSV Coalition's work starts with the basic belief that rather than focusing on a single election or deadline like we've seen in the past, sustainable increases in voter participation come from local leaders who know their community best, have access to local social networks, and are most culturally equipped to lead the effort. We understand that every campus is different: They have different student populations, different resources available to them and different challenges. We know there is no one-size-fits-all approach to registering and turning out students to vote on campus.

Instead, we've found that there is a local leader in virtually every campus community who cares about ensuring that his or her students are able to register and cast their ballot. And we empower them with tools and resources to be an agent of change right in their community.

We've seen firsthand that the current political structures and systems discount the power these local leaders can have in their communities. But with their attention, knowledge and enthusiasm, we're seeing real progress in communities across the country.

In 2018 alone, the SLSV Coalition worked with local leaders on 316 campuses who committed to analyzing their student turnout data from previous elections, writing and implementing strategic plans, and registering and mobilizing their students to vote. Coalition members supported these leaders by providing access to data, networking, financing and policy tools they needed to succeed on their campus.

As part of this effort, the SLSV Coalition invested in developing statewide student democracy networks in eight states last year. These networks are anchored by statewide summits that bring together students, faculty members, campus administrators, election officials and nonprofit partners to share promising practices and coordinate efforts to overcome shared challenges like restrictive voter registrations policies or a lack of institutional commitment from their campus.

For instance, during our Texas Student Voting Summit, the SLSV Coalition first connected with enthusiastic student leaders and a campus administrator from Texas A&M International University in Laredo. By utilizing coalition resources – local student registration and turnout data, coaching to write a strategic plan for the election, and funding to implement the plan – turnout among young people of color in Webb County (home to Laredo) had a profound impact on statewide elections in the 2018 midterms.

That's what sets the SLSV Coalition approach apart: Rather than organizing around a single election or issue – or relying on short-term staff members who may only spend a few months mobilizing voters around a single campaign – we're investing in long-term solutions that empower each community's specific leaders to work toward ensuring everyone can vote.

Even more promising, we know there are local leaders stepping up for their communities outside of the higher education world as well. We've seen local leaders getting involved at high schools, within hospitals and religious institutions, through municipal governments, and more. The SLSV Coalition will continue providing these tools and resources for years to come because we know that these local leaders deserve our investment and attention every year.

With Congress also seemingly coming around on the ideas of investing in local leaders, we're moving closer to solutions that empower communities to make civic participation a way of life. In order to truly transform our democracy, close participation gaps, and increase overall turnout in our elections, we have to trust, empower and support local leaders.

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