Stanford has emerged as a national leader in registering students on the national voter registration platform TurboVote in the wake of a tumultuous election cycle.
Stanford registered more students on the platform than any other college or university in 2020, according to TurboVote data. Not all students who register on the site register to vote, though. The civic engagement platform helps registrants view information about the election, request an absentee ballot and register to vote.
Stanford’s voter turnout rates have not always been at the top of the national leaderboard. Fewer than half of Stanford students voted in the 2016 presidential election, and fewer than one in five students voted in the 2014 midterm elections.
Student activists from the civic engagement group StanfordVotes helped drive the effort to mobilize students to vote. It came, in part, through an enrollment hold placed on students’ accounts, an initiative pushed by former StanfordVotes leaders. Before students can register for classes, students interact with a form through which they can register to vote, request an absentee ballot or change their mailing address.
“It’s simple, it’s easy and they don’t have to go out of their way to look for it,” said StanfordVotes Co-Director Sean Casey ’22.
Since StanfordVotes’ founding in 2018, the organization has utilized initiatives such as going dorm-to-dorm and tabling at White Plaza to create a culture of civic engagement on campus, according to Casey. But amid a pandemic, StanfordVotes members were challenged with figuring out how to cultivate this culture with most students living off campus.
Casey said that StanfordVotes’ solution was to “meet students where they are.” In 2020, as classes transitioned to online platforms, so did StanfordVotes’ initiatives, with the rollout of new social media accounts and a new website.
These digital platforms were “a way to bridge the COVID gap,” according to Emily Handsel ’23, StanfordVotes head of social media and branding. “I wanted the social media to serve as a Q&A for confused students, who could DM us for answers like they might ask a friend on campus,” she said.
The website, too, functioned as a “one-stop shop for all voter info,” she added.
In addition to the website and social media branding, StanfordVotes implemented several other methods of incentivizing voter registration. According to Liana Keesing ’23, who co-directs StanfordVotes alongside Casey, these methods ranged from encouraging teachers of large classes to create space for students to register to vote to sending StanfordVotes stickers to students if they created a detailed voting plan.
StanfordVotes also connected with leaders in the Stanford administration to develop an anti-racism toolkit on “how to engage on these election issues in the social and political moment,” according to Casey.
Casey also attributes StanfordVotes’ success to partnerships with groups such as the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB), Stanford Hillel and athletic teams. The partnership with the GSB ensured that they “weren’t just purely focused on helping undergraduate students but Stanford holistically, especially people who were there before we came and who are going to be there after us,” Casey said.
Partnership with the University may have helped too. Casey said the fact that “the institution of Stanford was able to get behind voting efforts this year is awesome.” The support from Stanford, in conjunction with StanfordVotes’ other efforts, represents what Casey believes is the institution’s commitment to civic engagement and voter turnout.
Though the 2020 election season is over, StanfordVotes continues to look forward and ensure that vibrant civic engagement at Stanford is not a one-time thing. “Institutionalizing changes that make it easier to vote on election day and that promote civic engagement will be a big focus,” said Casey.
“We are as prepared as we can be for this cycle, and will keep up the enthusiasm,” Keesing said.