LeadMN’s Democracy in Action Summit Recap

August 23, 2018

Blog post written by Rachael Houston, the State Organizer for Campus Election Engagement Project

On August 8th, 2018, LeadMN organized the Democracy in Action Summit to bring together students, staff, and faculty from two-year and four-year campuses across the state to discuss how students can have their voice heard in the 2018 midterm election. The conference was broken up into two sections: workshops and an interactive competition. During the first part of the day, participants attended workshops that exposed them to different approaches, and resources, they can use to engage students in the election. The second portion of the day was devoted to an interactive competition between the campuses. The campus teams developed ideas and plans to support student voter engagement and then pitched those ideas to a panel of judges. It was an exciting day filled with energized students and inspirational talks. Here are some of the highlights of the event:

Keynote Speaker Dr. Nancy Thomas

Dr. Nancy Thomas, the Director for the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education, kicked off the event discussing college student voting rates across the country. She highlighted why it is so important for us to be engaging students to vote. Only 18% of college students nationwide voted in the 2014 midterms. And while Minnesota did have registration and voting rates higher than the national average (28%), Black and Latino student voting rates are lower in Minnesota than the national average. She noted that campuses need to think about how to engage STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), voters of color, young voters, and those with less experience voting because these are the demographic groups that are the least likely to vote. She also recommended that campuses see this as an opportunity for the upcoming election. Dr. Thomas also discussed some of the challenges of student voting which include the lack of motivation from students to vote and students’ unfamiliarity with the candidates running.  She emphasized that we need to educate students about why their vote matters and who the candidates are, and not focus all of our efforts only on registration and GOTV.

Break Out Sessions


Dr. Nancy Thomas discussed in a session how important it is for campuses to join NSLVE, the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement, noting that it is the only study out there that objectively examines student and institution-level data on student voting and shares this data with participating campuses. It is free and protective of student privacy. The NSLV data tells campuses about their overall student turnout rates, and turnout by sociodemographic groups (including student majors, race/ethnicity, full-time v. part-time). This is a way to track the voting turnout progress at a campus over time and by specific groups. To learn more, check out https://idhe.tufts.edu/nslve.

Election Imperatives

The Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University recently released a report titled Election Imperatives. This report has landed on the president’s desk of every university in the country. The report highlights ten recommendations to increase student voting and to improve campus conditions for political learning, discourse, and agency during the election season and beyond. These recommendations draw from research on college student voting and the campus climates of highly politically engaged institutions. One of biggest takeaways is to attend to the campus climate. The campus climate refers to the experience of individuals and groups on a campus and the quality and extent of the interaction between those various groups and individuals. The report indicates that we need institutions to be intentional about inclusion. In addition to people with different social identities and political perspectives, involve staff across departments (including public safety and support staff); students and faculty from across disciplines (don’t forget low-voter turnout disciplines such as business and STEM); and students representing disparate groups, clubs, and interests (sports teams, theater groups, campus programming boards, the debate team, issue activists, cultural houses, a cappella groups, etc.).

Campus Barriers to Voting

Mike Burns, the National Director for The Campus Vote Project, had students gather together to talk about the barriers they encountered when going to vote for the first time. The purpose of this session was to reveal that a lot of students are overwhelmed when they vote for the first time. Many of the students expressed that they felt like they did not know enough about the candidates when going to the polls, while others said they were confused with the registration process or could not get a ride to their polling station. This session, then, had students brainstorm ways to help their peers with the voting process. One campus even said they are going to rent out party buses to haul students over to the polls this fall! These discussions are great to have with students because it lets them know that they are not alone. A lot people are confused or frustrated about the voting process when they vote for the first time.

The Shark Tank Competition

The campuses competed with one another to see who could create the best action plans for electoral engagement this fall. The teams huddled around tables with a calendar of the fall semester to figure out how they can educate, register, and get students to the polls. These action plans were very detailed; the students, faculty, and staff, had to figure out how much money each event needed, how they were going to recruit volunteers for the event, and who they needed to be in contact with to get the event set up. Campuses had around 3 hours to complete these action plans, then presented them to a panel of judges who had to decide which campuses would receive money. But, LeadMN announced at the end that every participating campus would receive at least $500 for engagement efforts this fall. How awesome is that?!

Minnesota Campus Compact and Campus Election Engagement Project (CEEP) are thankful to LeadMN for organizing this event. To see the program and additional photos, visit https://www.leadmn.org/sharktank.

If you would like more information about the event, email Rachael {at} CampusElect(.)org.