JOHNSON CITY (Aug. 29, 2016) – In an attempt to address one of American democracy’s biggest problems – low and unequal participation that leads to low levels of engagement beyond college – the Southern Conference is launching “SoCon Votes,” the first voter engagement competition in an NCAA Division I athletic conference.
“SoCon Votes” aims to capitalize on existing rivalries among schools to transform student voting engagement into a contest to be tracked by a national voting organization.
East Tennessee State University, along with each of the conference’s nine participating institutions, has formed a team of students, faculty and staff to compete in four rounds. After each round, a panel of voter engagement advisers will rank the teams based on a rubric.
“The rubric will consist of certain criteria, like get-out-the-vote efforts, ballot access, voter knowledge and more,” said Mercer University senior Joey Wozniak, who developed “SoCon Votes” with a grant from the Knight Foundation Fund at the Community Foundation of Central Georgia. “Theoretically, schools will come up with innovative ways to reach out to students in those specific areas.”
In the first round, teams sign up for the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE), which offers colleges and universities the opportunity to learn student registration and voting rates. Teams will be judged based on their institution’s voter turnout for the 2012 election. ETSU received its report in July and plans to build upon this information to improve student voter registration and participation this fall.
In the second round, teams create a playbook designed to increase voter engagement for the 2016 election and are judged based on the composition of their plans, while in the third round, teams will put their playbooks into action and be judged based upon how successful they were in implementing their plans.
The championship round will be judged based upon NSLVE reports for the 2016 election, with awards going to the teams with the highest and most improved undergraduate voter turnouts.
“This can be an effective method of taking the competitive nature all students have for their institution and converting it into action that benefits the democratic process,” said John Iamarino, commissioner of the Southern Conference. “We’re proud that the SoCon can play a role in encouraging student voter turnout.”
ETSU has created its playbook and named its program “ETSU Votes,” with numerous activities planned for the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election in November.
ETSU is carrying out its game plan in two phases, according to “ETSU Votes” Team Leader Dr. Carla Warner, director of Adult, Commuter and Transfer Services.
Phase one, focusing on voter registration, is under way and will extend through Oct. 11, which is the deadline to register to vote in Tennessee. Phase two will focus on educating students about the logistics of voting, including poll locations, absentee and early voting, and whether students from out of the area must return home to vote.
A voter registration table was part of many of ETSU’s Welcome Week activities (Aug. 22-27). An “ETSU Votes” website has been created (www.etsu.edu/etsuvotes) to provide information and helpful links on voter registration in Tennessee and other states. In addition, Facebook (www.facebook.com/etsuvotes) and Twitter (@ETSUVotes) accounts have been established.
Several activities slated for September include a Voter Registration Kick-Off on Sept. 6, followed by weekly dialogue sessions on various constitutional issues in celebration of Constitution Day (Sept. 17), presidential and vice presidential debate watch parties, and more. The month will culminate in a National Voter Registration Day Celebration on Sept. 27.
October’s “ETSU Votes” events include a faculty panel discussion and another debate watch party leading up to an election results watch party on Nov. 8.
Wozniak outlined his plan for “SoCon Votes” to student affairs professionals representing the conference institutions in Asheville, North Carolina, on March 4 and received overwhelming support.
“The various schools from around the conference were very positive about the concept, and instantly committed to making this part of our upcoming initiatives,” said Dr. Douglas Pearson, vice president for Student Affairs at Mercer. “It is great to see student civic engagement given such a prominent place at our institutions and in our conference.”
Wozniak publicly presented “SoCon Votes” for the first time as a panelist at the Campus Compact 30th Anniversary Conference, the premier gathering for civic engagement professionals in the nation, in Boston on March 22.For more information, visit www.etsu.edu/etsuvotes or call Warner at 423-439-5641.