A university-wide effort supported to increase voter registration and participation among eligible students, staff and faculty. The civic engagement program is coordinated by students and works across the entire Harvard University community.
Problems and Purpose
The U.S. has low young voter participation rates, averaging 46%.[i] Unlike other established democracies, the U.S. depends on partisan political organizations—rather than governmental bodies—to support voter engagement.[ii] Higher education is one exception, however. The federal government requires higher education institutions to engage in voter registration activities.[iii] Despite this mandate, students at Harvard University—like their peers at other schools—do not participate in elections at high rates.[iv] To address this issue, undergraduates, staff at the Harvard Institute for Politics, and scholars from the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation founded the Harvard Votes Challenge (HVC) in Fall 2018.[v] The nonpartisan, student-led organization’s mission is to build civic culture across campus, primarily through encouraging voter participation among students, staff, and faculty. The group’s organizing efforts, centered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are ongoing.
Background History and Context
During the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, 77.6% of students at Harvard University were registered to vote, and only 57.8% would cast a ballot. These voting rates are in line with peer institutions but still below the national average.[vi] Previous initiatives dedicated to voter registration at Harvard were highly dependent on student or staff leadership. By 2018, HVote, an undergraduate initiative run by the Institute of Politics (IOP) and the Harvard Kennedy School for Government (HKS), was largely defunct due to lack of student interest.[vii] National youth voter enthusiasm coming into the 2018 general election made the need for a new voting-focused university organization all the more pressing.[viii]
Students face several barriers to voting, most notably a lack of information about voter registration processes and ballot deadlines.[ix] HVC’s founders sought to achieve a lasting increase in voter participation and engagement by decreasing barriers to registration, ballot requests, and voting in person. However, beyond reducing barriers, they also wanted to institutionalize voter engagement in academic, administrative, and student-led spaces. HVC built on other collegiate voter registration successes, notably that of the University of Michigan. HVC differs, however, in two important respects. First, HVC promoted a 50-state strategy to register students in their home state rather than only in-state. Second, rather than principally dedicating itself to get-out-the-vote (GOTV) organizing, it would focus on embedding mechanisms for voter outreach and participation in other spaces.[x] HVC was active during the 2018 election cycle and would undergo a structural reorganization in Spring 2019 before entering its current form.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
HVC represents the consolidation of two voter engagement proposals, both begun in Spring 2018 but at different Harvard institutions—one led by undergraduate leaders at the IOP and another coming from staff at HKS. By August 2018, these two projects combined into one working group in partnership with the Harvard Ash Center staff.[xi] They proposed a new university-wide initiative to the Office of the Provost, culminating in approval by summer 2018.[xii] The organization’s leadership core is housed at the Harvard IOP, and the Ash Center is its primary sponsor. Each of Harvard’s 12 degree-granting schools has its own coalition, with strategy coordinated through the core.[xiii] Leadership comprises undergraduates, IOP staff members, and advisors from the Ash Center. HVC receives funding from the IOP and through a grant from the Harvard President’s Administrative Innovation Fund to support voter engagement efforts as required by the 1998 Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965.[xiv] It is a member of the All-In Campus Democracy Challenge, a consortium of campus groups seeking to increase democratic engagement across U.S. institutions of higher learning.[xv]
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Student volunteers and University staff comprise HVC’s membership. The university compensates staff, and students receive no pay beyond stipends or reimbursement. While HVC commits to inclusivity, there is no explicit mandate for equal representation for all groups.[xvi] Organizational size varies by semester and coalition and peaked at 390 affiliates in Fall 2020.[xvii] With the support of leadership core staff and scholars, two student Co-Chairs, undergraduates Alex Park and Lily Richman, as of 2021, lead university-wide efforts. The Co-Chairs oversee and advise the students and staff who run day-to-day operations at each school, with coalition structure varying by institution.[xviii] However, at a minimum, each school has one student “Voting Lead,” advised by a staff coach from the IOP or Ash Center and usually supported by a “Voting Team” of other students.
HVP members are self-selecting. Its undergraduate operation draws from the IOP common application, a survey that goes out to all undergraduate IOP affiliates—although members of the community can join directly as well. Individuals commit to different levels of engagement, increasing from general members to organizing fellows to department leaders.[xix] HVC’s mandate to improve voter engagement extends to all members of the Harvard community, totaling over 20,000 students as well as 18,000 staff and faculty.[xx] All community members can join HVC and engage with its organizers, although individuals can refuse contact.
Methods and Tools Used
HVC relies on two primary forms of engagement to meet its organizing goals: relational organizing and “civic conversations.” Relational organizing calls on members to engage direct and extended networks of friends and family usually through shared dorm, academic, or extracurricular connections by face-to-face contact, phone call, email, text, or direct message in a university context.[xxi] HVC also tested a vote tripling strategy, whereby organizers tasked relational contacts with engaging three of their own direct contacts.[xxii] In addition to relational organizing, some organizers received peer facilitator training to engage in one-on-one or small group interactions discussing civic engagement options with non-relational contacts.[xxiii] This outreach method was termed “civic conversations.”[xxiv]
HVC has utilized several different digital platforms to support organizing efforts. Harvard partners with TurboVote, an online product made by DemocracyWorks that guides students through the voter registration and ballot request processes.[xxv] During the 2020 presidential election, HVC contracted with ECanvasser, a nonpartisan political campaign platform that serves as a community database and organizer tracker.[xxvi]
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
HVC’s commitment to a 50-state strategy required the development of new voter registration and engagement guides, beginning in Fall 2018 with first drafts completed by Summer 2019.[xxvii] These guides summarized state election laws into “cheat sheets” used to fill out the Federal Voter Registration Application (FVRA).[xxviii] The development of these materials coincided with creating toolkits for students, administrators, faculty, and student organizations to embed voter engagement in new spaces. These materials were instrumental to all HVC organizing efforts, especially its two largest events: First-Year Voter Registration (FYVR) in Fall 2019 and 2020 U.S. presidential election organizing.
FYVR represented HVC’s first major initiative after 2018 to reduce informational and material barriers to voting for new students. During August 26-27, 2019, HVC organizers—in partnership with the Harvard College Dean of Students Office—led first-year undergraduates through civic conversations during move-in and registration. HVC members, embedded into established first-year move-in stations, directed students to conversation facilitators. Students completed civic engagement packets containing information on elections and a copy of the FVRA.[xxix] Conversation facilitators talked to students for a short period about the relationship between voting and being a member of the Harvard community. Eligible students could choose between registering in Massachusetts or their home state with facilitators on hand to answer questions about nuances in registration requirements for each state.[xxx] If allowed by state law, HVC members checked each registration form for errors and mailed them.
After FYVR, HVC's most significant organizational effort occurred during the lead up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election. While constrained by the COVID-19 pandemic, which prevented the majority of students from returning to campus, HVC’s Fall 2020 organizing consisted of simultaneous initiatives to execute a GOTV campaign, reduce informational and material barriers to voting, and institutionalize voter engagement in non-traditional spaces.
At the Co-Chairs’ direction, the Harvard College coalition[xxxi] recruited twelve undergraduate “Organizing Fellows” (OFs) in August 2020 to spearhead the GOTV campaign. The OFs reported to the director of the Organizing Department, who in turn reported to the Co-Chairs. OFs divided the undergraduate student body (6000+) into distinct turfs by class year and dorm to maximize relational contacts.[xxxii] They each recruited volunteers to form organizing teams, with each team expected to support their turf through the voting process. Given public health guidance and the difficulty of in-person engagement with students spread across the country, organizers contacted students primarily through text, phone call, and email using scripts adapted from 50-state strategy materials.
The campaign consisted of three phases. In the first phase, organizing teams reached out to students and led them through a Pledge to Vote (PtV) form. The PtV form condensed materials from the 50-state strategy into a Google Form that instructed students to register to vote (either through TurboVote or a government website), make a voting plan, and request an absentee ballot, if applicable.[xxxiii] In the second phase, organizing teams would confirm a student’s voting plan based on their PtV submission and ensure they had requested/received an absentee ballot, if applicable. Finally, in phase three, organizers would follow up with students to ensure they had completed their voting plan by submitting a ballot or voting in person and engage in vote tripling. Phase 1 began with the start of the academic year during the last week of August and lasted until “National Voter Registration Day” on September 22, 2020. Phase 2 continued until “National Submit Your Ballot Day,” on October 13, 2020, which marked the transition to Phase 3, lasting until the election on November 3, 2020.[xxxiv] Throughout this process, organizers filtered information and tracked student progress using ECanvasser, which centralized PtV information, TurboVote data, and organizer contacts into a platform available on both web and mobile apps.
Beyond the GOTV campaign, however, HVC also sought to engage students in University spaces usually unrelated to voting. In August 2020, the group relaunched an existing Pledge to 100% campaign, which invited student and athletic organizations to commit to engaging their members in conversations and events to reach 100% voter participation.[xxxv] In support, HVC provided PtV data and organizing toolkits based on the 50-state strategy materials to Pledge to 100% groups. HVC also partnered with faculty to bring discussions about voting to academic settings. Throughout the fall, faculty partners received toolkits on civic engagement, slides to include in their lectures, and student volunteers would present in class.[xxxvi]
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
HVC’s outcomes can be measured dually in terms of both total contacts and student receptivity. During the two days of FYVR, HVC engaged 1000 students in civic conversations, with over 600 completing civic engagement packets.[xxxvii] Indeed, the success of these methods, especially the 50-state strategy materials, has garnered interest from peer organizations at other schools.[xxxviii] During 2020 election organizing (spanning three months), HVC recruited 390 organizers who sent 94,000 texts and emails to students across all school coalitions. HVC members answered over 2,200 student questions about voting.[xxxix] About 8,000 Harvard affiliates pledged to vote, 121 organizations—including over half of all athletic teams—joined the Pledge to 100% initiative, and 280 faculty members dedicated time in class to discussing voting.[xl] During the 2018 election cycle, Harvard student voter participation doubled as compared to 2014.[xli] While University-wide data on voting rates in 2020 is not yet available, at HKS, 92% of eligible students voted.[xlii]
Students were mixed in their opinion of HVC. First-years who participated in civic conversations during FYVR, including ineligible students, supported HVC’s efforts to reduce information barriers.[xliii] Social media posts during 2020 election organizing efforts expand on this sentiment, crediting HVC with lowering both information and material barriers to voting.[xliv] However, other students expressed frustration with the group’s messaging and volume of contacts, finding the group’s efforts to be annoying and harassing.[xlv]
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Given HVC’s aim of institutionalizing voter engagement, HVC’s efficacy and efficiency correspond to voter turnout and the sustainability of its methods. At this time, there is insufficient information to determine HVC’s effect on voting rates at Harvard or whether student, academic, and administrative spaces will continue to promote civic engagement in the long term. Indeed, the best barometer of institutionalization may be student attitudes toward HVC, which offers insight into the HVC’s success at promoting inclusivity and transparency. That some students found HVC’s organizing efforts to be disturbing or alienating may reflect the method of participant selection. While HVC seeks to promote voter participation among all eligible students, its volunteer-based recruitment and affiliation with the IOP result in self-selection among members. Concerns among undocumented and ineligible communities about contact with HVC could reflect a membership non-representative of the student body.[xlvi] Improving inclusivity in both member recruitment and messaging remains an ongoing task for HVC and a lesson for peer institutions at other schools.
[i] Alexandria Symonds, “Why Don’t Young People Vote, and What Can Be Done About It?,” The New York Times, October 8, 2020, sec. The Upshot, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/08/upshot/youth-voting-2020-election.html.
[ii] Jennifer Rosenberg and Margaret Chen, “Expanding Democracy: Voter Registration Around the World” (Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, 2009), https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/publications/Expanding.Democracy.pdf.
[iii] “ALL IN Challenge | Background,” ALL IN Challenge (blog), accessed March 9, 2021, https://allinchallenge.org/background/.
[iv] Tufts NSLVE, “Student Voting Rates for Harvard University: 2012 & 2016,” National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement Campus Report (Tufts University, Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, 2017), https://allinchallenge.org/wp-content/uploads/Harvard-University-NSLVE-2016.pdf.
[v] “About: Harvard Votes Challenge,” About, accessed February 12, 2021, https://voteschallenge.harvard.edu/about.
[vi] N. Thomas et al., “Democracy Counts: A Report on U.S. College and University Voting” (Insitute for Democracy & Higher education, Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, 2017), https://idhe.tufts.edu/sites/default/files/NSLVE%20Report%202012-2016-092117%5B3%5D.pdf.
[vii] Teddy Landis, Interview with Harvard Votes Challenge Co-Founder, Teddy Landis, interview by Jay Sastry, March 1, 2020.
[viii] Ella Nilsen, “Young People Say They Plan to Vote at Near-Historic Highs,” Vox, October 29, 2018, https://www.vox.com/2018/10/29/18037916/young-people-vote-harvard-poll-2018-midterms.
[ix] Harvard Votes Challenge Leadership, “A University-Wide Voting Moonshot: The Harvard Votes Challenge” (Harvard Institute of Politics, 2018), https://allinchallenge.org/wp-content/uploads/Harvard-University-Action-Plan-2020.pdf; Symonds, “Why Don’t Young People Vote, and What Can Be Done About It?”
[x] Landis, Interview with Harvard Votes Challenge Co-Founder, Teddy Landis; Harvard Votes Challenge Leadership, “A University-Wide Voting Moonshot: The Harvard Votes Challenge.”
[xi] Landis, Interview with Harvard Votes Challenge Co-Founder, Teddy Landis.
[xiii] Harvard Votes Challenge Leadership, “A University-Wide Voting Moonshot: The Harvard Votes Challenge.”
[xiv] Landis, Interview with Harvard Votes Challenge Co-Founder, Teddy Landis; “Harvard Votes Challenge: Building a University-Wide Civic Culture,” Harvard President’s Administrative Innovation Fund, accessed March 8, 2021, https://innovationfund.evp.harvard.edu/harvard-votes-challenge-building-university-wide-civic-culture.
[xv] “Harvard University,” ALL IN Challenge (blog), accessed March 9, 2021, https://allinchallenge.org/campuses/harvard-university/.
[xvi] Harvard Votes Challenge Leadership, “A University-Wide Voting Moonshot: The Harvard Votes Challenge.”
[xvii] Sarah Grucza, “121 Organizations, 390 Volunteers, and 1,700 Stamps,” Harvard Gazette (blog), November 20, 2020, https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/11/harvard-votes-challenge-used-different-paths-toward-common-goal/.
[xviii] Harvard Votes Challenge Leadership, “A University-Wide Voting Moonshot: The Harvard Votes Challenge.”
[xix] Harvard Votes Challenge Co-Chairs, “Open Harvard Votes Challenge Positions,” August 12, 2020, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1qLK9QEnT9rjdR0NpkJVZSin62vXVokVy88-IDmXGSJU/edit?usp=sharing.
[xx] “Harvard University Fact Book,” accessed March 8, 2021, https://oir.harvard.edu/fact-book; “About: Harvard Votes Challenge.”
[xxi] Kevin Ballen et al., “All-In Action Plan for Harvard University 2020” (All-In Challenge, January 2020), https://allinchallenge.org/wp-content/uploads/Harvard-University-Action-Plan-2020.pdf.
[xxii] Bobby Brady-Sharp, “Power of Friend-to-Friend Voter Outreach: Relational Organizing Insights,” Blog, When We All Vote, October 26, 2020, https://whenweallvote.medium.com/power-of-friend-to-friend-voter-outreach-relational-organizing-insights-6209de162e96.
[xxiii] Further information on facilitator training was unavailable at this time.
[xxiv] Harvard Votes Challenge Leadership, “First-Year Voter Registration - Program Overview,” Google Docs, accessed March 9, 2021, https://docs.google.com/document/u/1/d/1LMvCakT15SP2glmOVnAC59IYFZu0QyHkeoHQvzRivZc/edit?fromCopy=true&usp=embed_facebook.
[xxv] “TurboVote About,” Democracy Works, accessed March 9, 2021, https://www.democracy.works/turbovote-about; “Integrating TurboVote into an Online Pre-Semester Process” (Harvard Institute of Politics, 2017).
[xxvi] “Grassroots Organizing | Community Software | Nonprofit Software | Political Campaign Software | Ecanvasser,” accessed March 9, 2021, https://www.ecanvasser.com/grassroots-organizing.html.
[xxvii] Landis, Interview with Harvard Votes Challenge Co-Founder, Teddy Landis.
[xxviii] Landis; Harvard Votes Challenge Organizing Team, “Voter Registration Cheat Sheet,” April 2020, https://drive.google.com/file/d/1G7vM_SJ5xz5wIvPD4vYwtuI8Ej_LxpqA/view?usp=sharing.
[xxix] Harvard Votes Challenge Leadership, “First-Year Voter Registration - Program Overview.”; However, the exact contents of civic engagement packets could not be found at this time.
[xxx] Harvard Votes Challenge Leadership.
[xxxi] All twelve coalitions led similar campaigns at their respective schools; however, information on non-College efforts is unavailable at this time.
[xxxii] Maya Woods-Arthur, “What Organizers Need to Know About Ecanvasser,” August 16, 2020, https://docs.google.com/document/u/1/d/1fecz82xaiZQu5d7tYJANfvYJp0agU-7VGKODR27aUQU/edit?usp=drive_web&ouid=110803217678646864979&usp=embed_facebook.
[xxxiii] Harvard Votes Challenge Organizing Team, “Organizer Procedure Memo,” August 16, 2020, https://docs.google.com/document/u/1/d/162d_jKAguTrCw8W0oTNx28KttxKG9zc3GiTAyW_9FVg/edit?usp=drive_web&ouid=110803217678646864979&usp=embed_facebook; Woods-Arthur, “What Organizers Need to Know About Ecanvasser.”
[xxxiv] Kevin Ballen, Interview with Harvard Votes Challenge Former Co-Chair, Kevin Ballen, interview by Jay Sastry, March 11, 2020.
[xxxv] Ema Schumer, “More than Half of Athletic Teams Pledge to Reach 100 Percent Voter Turnout,” The Harvard Crimson, September 28, 2020, https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2020/9/28/athletes-pledge-voter-turnout/; “Pledge to 100%,” accessed March 12, 2021, https://voteschallenge.harvard.edu/voter-pledge.
[xxxvi] Harvard Votes Challenge Outreach Team, “Faculty Voter Engagement Leadership,” August 2020, https://drive.google.com/file/d/1QC9sf8dN0FEoh4dfKZR27SDi1-CtMpLa/view?usp=sharing.
[xxxvii] Ballen, Interview with Harvard Votes Challenge Former Co-Chair, Kevin Ballen.
[xxxviii] Landis, Interview with Harvard Votes Challenge Co-Founder, Teddy Landis.
[xxxix] Institute of Politics, “In This Election, @HVotesChallenge Faced Unprecedented Circumstances in Helping the Harvard Community Turn out to Vote. Student Leaders Rose to the Challenge, Reaching More Voters than Ever. Scroll down ⬇️ & Visit the Gazette to Learn about HVC’s Impact: https://T.Co/2osA2V5yMQ Https://T.Co/8TF7kiqXlD,” Tweet, @harvardiop (blog), November 25, 2020, https://twitter.com/harvardiop/status/1331630610662662149.
[xl] Grucza, “121 Organizations, 390 Volunteers, and 1,700 Stamps”; Institute of Politics, “In This Election, @HVotesChallenge Faced Unprecedented Circumstances in Helping the Harvard Community Turn out to Vote. Student Leaders Rose to the Challenge, Reaching More Voters than Ever. Scroll down ⬇️ & Visit the Gazette to Learn about HVC’s Impact: Https://T.Co/2osA2V5yMQ Https://T.Co/8TF7kiqXlD.”
[xli] Tufts NSLVE, “Student Voting Rates for Harvard University: 2014 & 2018,” National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement Campus Report (Tufts University, Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, 2019), https://allinchallenge.org/wp-content/uploads/Harvard-University-NSLVE-2018.pdf.
[xlii] Grucza, “121 Organizations, 390 Volunteers, and 1,700 Stamps.”
[xliii] Simone Chu, “Harvard Votes Challenge Targets Freshmen With Move-In Registration,” The Harvard Crimson, September 13, 2019, https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2019/9/13/harvard-votes-challenge-19/.
[xliv] “HConfession7890,” Harvard Confessions, October 17, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/theharvardconfessions/posts/632475764095451; “HConfession8200,” Harvard Confessions, November 1, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/theharvardconfessions/posts/643399499669744.
[xlv] “HConfession7651,” Harvard Confessions, October 6, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/theharvardconfessions/posts/624953678180993; “HConfession7737,” Harvard Confessions, October 10, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/theharvardconfessions/posts/627458977930463; “HConfession7442,” Harvard Confessions, September 25, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/theharvardconfessions/posts/617440388932322.