The ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge kicked off its third biennial awards ceremony on Monday, November 8, 2021, to recognize select higher education institutions, educators, and students for their extraordinary work in student voter engagement during the 2020 presidential election. Washington University in St. Louis received the Best Action Plan Award for Best in Class – 4-Year Private Institution at the virtual award ceremony. The award is presented to recognize WashU’s efforts to develop and implement a campus-wide voter engagement action plan to help students to improve nonpartisan civic learning, political engagement, and voter participation.
“As the anchor to our Engage Democracy Initiative, our voter education and engagement strategy in 2020 was a true university-wide effort,” said Stephanie Kurtzman, the Peter G. Sortino Director of the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement. “The entire campus community played a role to ensure students had the knowledge, resources, and access they needed to cast their ballot. What’s most inspiring to me in looking back on the process that resulted in this historical WashU voter turnout is the level of student leadership at every stage of our strategy.”
The 2020 election cycle saw unprecedented voter registration and turnout among college students according to the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE), a research study of the Institute for Democracy in Higher Education (IDHE) at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University. IDHE reported that 66% of college students nationwide voted in the 2020 election, a 14 point increase from 2016. Data provided by IDHE shows Washington University’s voting rate increased by 8.4 to 71% in 2020.
In addition, Washington University was awarded a Gold Seal by the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge for a voting rate between 70-79% of the student body.
“The rise in voter participation and engagement for college students in last year’s presidential election amidst a global pandemic was tremendous and will undoubtedly be tied to the tireless efforts of the dedicated students, faculty, administrators, and partner organizations that are part of the ALL IN Challenge network,” said Jen Domagal-Goldman, Executive Director of the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge.
At WashU, planning for the 2020 presidential election began as soon as polls closed in the November 2016 election. Lessons learned relating to the campus polling place, access, and awareness of mail-in ballots, participation rates among various campus communities, and more yielded meaningful adjustments that led to a more comprehensive voter education and engagement plan in 2020. Still, the pathway to November 2020 provided new hurdles for students and campus leaders to grapple with, namely, the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The pandemic changed the environment in many ways, but the messaging of our voter education and engagement efforts largely remained the same: your vote matters,” said Theresa Kouo, Associate Director for Civic Engagement at the Gephardt Institute.
“Mail-in ballots have always been an important feature of the campus voting effort since many of our students opt to vote in their home states. We knew that absentee voting would be even more critical in 2020. We also recognized heading into the fall that because of the pandemic, our campus community was fragmented in terms of their location and access to campus resources. We gave extra attention to how we could deliver everything a student would need to understand and cast their ballot wherever they were located.”
Already, the lessons of November 2020 are being put to good use. As the political world turns its eyes to the midterm elections next fall, the Gephardt Institute, its WashU Votes student committee, and campus partners are exploring ways to increase participation and engagement in non-presidential elections.
“We have much to be proud of when it comes to our results in 2020,” Kurtzman said, “and I am just as excited about how the WashU community can step up even more in elections to come.”
The ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge is a national, nonpartisan initiative of Civic Nation, a 501(c)(3) organization. Learn more and see a full list of winning campuses at: https://allinchallenge.org/awards-ceremony