Written by Daniel Harsha, Associate Director for Communications and Public Affairs
Illustrations by Melissa Axelrod
Getting eligible Harvard students to vote in US elections shouldn’t be hard, should it? After all, the University prides itself on being a training ground for emerging leaders, inculcating into successive generations of students the values and importance of civic engagement and democratic governance. But it turns out that many of these same students don’t exercise what is arguably democracy's core right and responsibility while at Harvard: showing up at the polls.
Voting participation numbers for young Americans are low. Indeed, in some elections, particularly when a presidential race is not at the top of the ticket, turnout can be abysmally low. For example, in the 2014 midterm elections, a record low 19.9 percent of voters aged 18–29 cast a vote according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University. That year, students at Harvard voted at only a slightly higher rate than their peers around the country, with an estimated 24 percent of eligible undergraduate and graduate students turning out for an election that tipped control of the US Senate and statehouses around the country.
Getting Out the Youth Vote
Academics and commentators struggle to explain why the overwhelming majority of young people stay away from the polls, in 2014 and most other recent elections. Reflecting on the 2014 vote, Peter Levine, who previously headed CIRCLE at Tufts, posited that campaigns simply failed to mobilize young voters. Looking back at the dismal 2014 turnout figures, he pointed to a Pew Research Center survey concluding that voters aged 18–28 were least likely to be contacted directly by a campaign. Others have laid the blame for low turnout participation rates on the many institutional roadblocks to youth voting, including onerous ID requirements that target students or absentee ballot restrictions that effectively disenfranchise students enrolled at universities that are unable to return home to vote. An HKS Institute of Politics (IOP) survey conducted in 2015 after the midterm pointed to rising alienation among young voters from traditional authority figures, with many respondents concluding their votes would not make a difference anyway.
For Archon Fung, Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government and faculty director of the Ash Center’s Democratic Governance program, the answer to solving this massive participation gap can be found in creating a new culture of voting. “We need to create and thicken the culture of political participation and voting so that everybody has a stronger sense that they should participate in politics.” Traditionally, voter participation has been the domain of political parties and candidates, but Fung believes that it would be “much, much more powerful if the civic culture of participation was woven throughout our communities and organizations—including nonprofit organizations, schools, and companies.”
"I was probably about 70 percent confident that we'd get to 90 percent, but I was 100 percent confident that we'd learn a lot"
An Ambitious Goal
Fung has been examining what it would take for US voter-turnout levels to reach 80 percent, the average among member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Removing institutional barriers to voting by doing away with discriminatory voter ID laws, cumbersome registration requirements, and other restrictive policies that make it harder to vote would likely result in marginally increased turnout numbers, Fung argues, “but it wouldn't do much to get us to 80 or 90 percent participation.” Kathryn Sikkink, Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy, echoes this idea, “We have to simultaneously demand that the state respect rights to vote while mobilizing individuals about their responsibility to vote."
Unsurprisingly, Fung and Sikkink see large institutions—corporations as well as schools and universities like Harvard—as natural incubators for enabling and encouraging this culture of voting. Inspired by the 2016 Big Ten Voting Challenge, a voting registration and participation competition held among the 14 universities in the Big Ten Conference, Fung, along with the Ash Center and the IOP, wanted to formalize a student voter engagement campaign in the months leading up to the 2018 general election in order to “raise the salience and the importance of democracy as an issue for everybody at the Kennedy School.” Fung and the Ash Center, working with the IOP and its cadre of civically- and politically-minded undergraduates; along with students, staff, and faculty from across the University asked what it would take to launch a voter participation campaign across as many of Harvard’s degree granting schools as possible. For this new voter participation drive, ultimately dubbed the Harvard Votes Challenge (HVC), the Ash Center helped coordinate the HKS arm of the campaign.
As a school of government, Fung felt that the bar should be raised even higher, and set a goal of having 90 percent of eligible HKS students participate. It was an ambitious target. “I was probably about 70 percent confident that we'd get to 90 percent, but I was 100 percent confident that we'd learn a lot,” Fung later admitted. While the immediate goal of the challenge was to increase the previously anemic levels of student voting, the overarching goal for Fung, Sikkink, and others at HKS was to use HVC as a vehicle for creating a pervasive culture of voter participation and civic engagement at the School. “We know that people everywhere are more likely to vote if it's embedded in positive community activities or a positive campus climate,” said Sikkink.
Building the Tools and Team
Teresa Acuña, associate director of the Ash Center's Democratic Governance programs, worked closely with Fung and Sikkink to conceive and execute the challenge. “For us to be successful, we knew we had to have students in the driver’s seat to create buy-in from their classmates and friends, as well as help with the nitty-gritty of running what in essence was a highly targeted voter-mobilization effort.” Thankfully for Fung and Acuña, there was no shortage of HKS students willing to take up the mantle of leadership for the challenge. “This is Harvard, this is a place that prides itself in being a leader in the community and around the world, and for a school like Harvard to be doing so poorly at getting students to vote, really showed that there is a significant cultural problem when it comes to participating in elections,” said Mike Miesen MPP 2019, a student leader of the Harvard Votes Challenge campaign who worked in the global health field as a freelance journalist before coming to HKS.
Miesen was joined by a team of students to coordinate the challenge, including classmate Gwen Camp MC/MPA 2019, a veteran of political races in her home state of Pennsylvania where she served as state director for US Senator Robert Casey and chief of staff for the state treasurer. Camp, who had worked on a number of congressional elections in Pennsylvania as well as Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign knew a thing or two about walking precincts to turn out the vote on Election Day. “We wanted the challenge to be just a really old school organizing effort that would connect our community and unite the Kennedy School around a common goal,” Camp recalled.
To track the challenge’s progress, the team asked students to sign up for TurboVote, an online voter registration and election notification tool, which stood in as a proxy for actual voter registrations. The IOP had previously used the tool to register undergraduates to vote, and it also helped that TurboVote’s founders, Kathryn Peters and Seth Flaxman, were both HKS alums [see sidebar]. The website acts as a clearinghouse for users, connecting them directly with their local board of election or town clerk to register to vote, as well as sending users updates on election deadlines and polling locations. The platform also helped Harvard Votes Challenge organizers know who had signed up to participate in the challenge in real time, allowing Camp, Miesen and other student leaders to see which of their classmates needed further outreach.
By organizing among various degree programs at the School, HVC leaders developed outreach strategies to encourage classmates to sign up through TurboVote by tapping influencers, be they fellow students or administrators to encourage participation. Organizers pitted each of the School’s degree programs against one another in a friendly competition to see which cohort of students could claim the most TurboVote sign-ups. They also tapped faculty to serve as validators for the campaign. “Professors see every student at the School and could help get the message out,” said Camp. With campaign leaders scattered in all of the School's degree programs, faculty urging their students to participate, and administrators throughout HKS echoing the message to register and vote, TuboVote numbers climbed through much of the fall. "Harvard Votes Challenge emerged as a unique opportunity to activate the entire HKS community. It stands as a proud of example of partnership between the HKS institution, faculty, staff, and students, demonstrating a shared vision of civic duty and modeling the democracy we want to see,” said Acuña.
An International Affair
With nearly half of HKS students hailing from outside of the United States, HVC organizers were keen to engage with the entire student community on the campaign, not just those who happened to be eligible to vote in November. International students helped staff TurboVote sign-up tables and volunteered for community voter registration drives. “We really made sure that the campaign wasn’t going to drive any wedges between Americans and international students or otherwise feel like we were excluding any segment of the community,” said Camp. To that end, the Ash Center engaged with international student groups, and hosted a number of seminars and public discussions about voting participation, election administration, and civic engagement in countries around the world to foster a School-wide dialogue on voting. “International students were an important part of the campaign, and we wanted to make sure their perspectives were heard and their voices included in everything we did,” said Acuña.
As Election Day neared, organizers could see the number of sign-ups continue to inch closer to the participation goal on a daily basis. “It took a ton of resources, a ton of time, and a ton of hustle,” said Camp, but ultimately the team reached their 90 percent goal with almost two weeks to spare before November 6. Camp and her classmates also worked to make sure that in the run-up to Election Day itself, students had a plan to vote. “If you actually plan out how you’re going to vote, whether it’s casting an early or absentee ballot or just carving out some time from your day to go to the polls, you’re much more likely to vote,” Acuña added.
With the midterms now in the rearview mirror following a 10 percent jump in national youth voter engagement compared to 2014, the HVC organizing team continues to work on the longer-term goal of fostering a University-wide culture of voting and civic engagement. “The next steps are to continue to socialize voting, talk about the success that we had, and develop materials about what we did that other people can use,” said Fung. For Sikkink, she sees a chance for Harvard to lead by declaring Election Day a University holiday: “It should be an opportunity to educate ourselves about democracy.” It is clear that the Harvard Votes Challenge generated a great deal of energy and enthusiasm about voting and civic engagement across the University, with no signs of ebbing anytime soon.