UM-Dearborn is now officially a ‘Voter Friendly Campus’

March 25, 2019

With this new campus initiative, democracy will become a more regular part of everyone’s campus routine.

When it comes to engaging student voters, Brendan Gallagher said some of the oldest methods are still the most essential. UM-Dearborn’s coordinator for civic engagement counts voter registration drives among the must-dos — even better if you follow them with an election day get-out-the-vote effort. And given a college campus’ built-in network of faculty and community experts, election season shouldn’t pass without a few expert-led issue forums.

But Gallagher also said these time-tested tools have one obvious thing in common: They’re most likely to pop-up on campus in the lead-up to a big election — and then disappear right after.

“Ultimately we want to register as many people as we can — and get them to turn out,” Gallagher said. “But our view is that what someone does on election day is influenced by every day that comes before that. So if students are personally engaging with the issues pretty continuously throughout the year  —and not just for a few days every two or four years  — getting them to the polls sort of becomes the icing on the cake. They’ll vote, not because someone’s bugging them about it, but because they personally value it.”

To help build that deeper, year-round voting culture, UM-Dearborn recently teamed up with the national nonprofit Campus Vote Project to become an officially designated Voter Friendly Campus. The goal of the initiative is to create programs and policies that embed voter-focused activities into more parts of campus life (instead of just relying on things centered around election season). Campus Vote Project helps each Voter Friendly Campus figure out what that looks like at their particular university. But Gallagher and the faculty, staff and students who have rallied around this effort have already shown they’re not afraid to get a little creative.

Cafe Conversations
Cafe Conversations
Students debate whether men's and women's sports should be separate during a recent pop-up event in the CASL building. The issue-focused events are part of UM-Dearborn's new status as a designated Voter Friendly Campus.

Take, for example, those expert-led town halls that are a pre-election staple. Jordan Wohl, a UM-Dearborn political science junior who’s helping organize the Voter Friendly Campus effort, said the team decided to cut back on those. Instead, they’re structuring most of their issue forums using the “world cafe” model, which is driven by small-group discussions. That way, more people can actively practice two of the core skills of democracy: articulating a point of view and listening to others who have a different one.

These Cafe Conversations events also are scattered across the calendar now — with topics that transcend the news hook of election season. Two recent events with intentionally provocative titles —“Is Political Correctness Correct?” and “Your Vote Doesn’t Count” — are good cases in point.

Another hallmark of UM-Dearborn’s Voter Friendly Campus action plan: Rather than asking students to come to an event, the events are coming to the students. Wohl said in one case, a political science professor provided a captive audience by hosting an event during scheduled class time. And those Cafe Conversations often are staged inside the constantly buzzing student organization center, where they quickly attract a crowd.

Gallagher told us they’re even trying out “guerilla” pop-up events, which students couldn’t put on their calendars even if they wanted to.

“For example, we’ll just show up in the CASL Building, roll in a giant bingo board and play a game of ‘voter engagement bingo,’” he said. “We’re there for an hour, then we’re gone. But it’s a nice alternative to always renting a space, putting in a catering order and asking people to sit there for two hours listening to a panel at the end of a long day.”

In other words, Gallagher said, the next big thing in voter engagement at UM-Dearborn is to make it way more engaging.

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