Barnard’s Student Government Association voted last week to endorse a campaign to institutionalize voter registration on college campuses—the latest step in a campuswide movement encouraging students to vote.
The New Standard for Campus Voter Engagement, an initiative of the nonprofit voter registration website TurboVote, aims to start voter registration efforts during orientation weeks at colleges across the country.
The initiative asks college administrators to appoint a staff member who will oversee and support efforts to institutionalize voting registration.
SGA members said at their meeting last Monday that they voted to endorse the New Standard in order to increase the number of voters on campus.
“Our goal is to get voter registration drives or booths in orientation programs. We would like to do what we can to directly implement that at Barnard,” Renee Kraiem, BC ’14 and SGA’s vice president of communications, said. “Whether that is something that can feasibly happen in 2014, we don’t know.”
The New Standard, which has been supported by 72 colleges, is only the latest project of TurboVote, which was founded by Seth Flaxman, CC ’07. The site automates voter registration and absentee ballot requests and promotes awareness of upcoming elections among students through email and text reminders.
During last year’s presidential election, 20 percent of the student body registered to vote through TurboVote as a result of a partnership between the website, Columbia University Democrats, the Columbia University College Republicans, and the Political Science Students Association.
David Kang, CC ’15 and treasurer of CU Dems and Columbia Political Union, said that while registering students in 2012 was successful, the “problem was getting new students involved in politics even when the elections aren’t ‘important.’”
“The most important ones are actually local, because they will affect you more,” he said. “You’re probably never going to see [President Barack] Obama. You have a very good chance of seeing your senator, your assemblyman, your congressman.”
This year, a similar effort organized by the three clubs and TurboVote registered 40 people walking by booths in front of John Jay, Lerner, and Carman for three days during the New Student Orientation Program—fewer than Kang had hoped, he said.
“What I’m hoping is that in time for the national 2014 elections, the midterms, we have an official administrative approval from Columbia to say, ‘We want something during NSOP described under the New Standard initiative,’” Kang said.
Under the Higher Education Amendments of 1998, colleges must make a “good faith effort” to distribute a voter registration form to each enrolled student. The New Standard initiative is organized to fulfill that requirement.
“In 1998, a ‘good faith effort’ was getting everyone a paper form. Obviously, things have changed since 1998,” Sam Novey, director of partnerships at TurboVote, said.
Flaxman said he first realized the site’s potential when he was studying abroad at the University of Cambridge. In the United States, Flaxman was a very active voter, but at Cambridge, he had uncharacteristically missed two or three elections back home.
“I knew that the problem couldn’t be me, there had to be an actual problem with the process of voting,” Flaxman said. “I started looking for a tool like TurboVote online, and couldn’t find it.”
That’s when he decided to build a platform where “you could sign up one time and we would help you stay registered and help you vote in all of your elections, from local to presidential, for the rest of your life, no matter where you moved.”
Now, the site has more than 200,000 users—about 35,000 of whom are college students registered as a result of the New Standard initiative.
Columbia students informed of the initiative expressed optimism about its possibilities for bringing registration to campus.
“Having the option would allow people to think about it and take care of it in the time before school starts,” said Robbie LeDesma, GS ’14.
“My best friend missed the registration deadline because she didn’t know when it was,” said Sarah Rohrschneider, BC ’16, adding that it would be nice “having something on campus that would make it easier, especially with absentee ballots.”
Columbia students can visit columbia.turbovote.org to register for free for TurboVote’s service.