VCU Votes: On social media, students encourage voter participation on campus and beyond

“The main idea is to convince our peers of their own importance in every election if they want to see the change that they talk about all year round.”

An image collage of social media posts from V C U Votes.
A collage of social media posts from VCU Votes, a network of VCU students, faculty and staff that promotes voter engagement on campus.

With the Nov. 3 presidential contest between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden fast approaching, the student-run, nonpartisan @VCUVotes Twitter account has been promoting voter registration drives in Richmond, sharing information about how to register and find your polling place, and highlighting that VCU was recently recognized as one of the best colleges in the U.S. for student voting.

“It’s hard enough to convince people that their vote matters, but even those who want to vote are facing new obstacles this year,” said Raven Witherspoon, a senior in the Department of Physics in the College of Humanities and Sciences and a student in the Honors College. “Consolidating resources and making the voting process accessible to all is the best way to make sure our voices are heard in November.”

Witherspoon, who is part of the team behind the Twitter account, is taking the class, VCU Votes, in which Honors students run social media — @VCUVotes on Instagram and VCU Votes on Facebook, along with Twitter — in support of VCU Votes, a network of VCU students, faculty and staff that promotes voter engagement on campus. The group coordinates campuswide events, provides voter education, and works to make VCU the most voter-friendly campus possible.

“The goal of the class is to teach students how to run a social media campaign — specifically a get-out-the-vote campaign,” said Nicole O’Donnell, Ph.D., an assistant professor of public relations in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, who is teaching the special topics course. “It’s a fun opportunity for students in terms of learning about how to run a digital campaign, but then of course the goal is also to get out the vote and to promote voting.”

The class introduces students to political communication while also educating the broader VCU community about the importance of being civically engaged, especially when it comes to voting, said Jacqueline Smith-Mason, Ph.D., senior associate dean of the Honors College and co-chair of the VCU Votes Advisory Council.

“College students have always faced barriers to voting, but more recently, the barriers appear to be increasing,” Smith-Mason said. “Therefore, a class like VCU Votes helps to keep students informed and in many ways, it is peer-to-peer learning where students are teaching and fostering perspectives about what it means to be an active citizen.”

The class explores the theory and practice of social media in political communication, particularly in the context of this year’s presidential election. The students serve on teams that each manage one of the three social media accounts, and develop content for three “micro-campaigns” they’re running: to encourage voter registration, early voting and voting on Election Day.

The students’ social media content also includes messages about how voting is easy and can make an impact.

“A lot of times students are overwhelmed with information about voting and we want to make it as easy as possible,” O’Donnell said. “[We provide information like:] ‘Here’s how to register. It takes five minutes of your time. It’s easy. You can do it now.’”

The students are also emphasizing messages about VCU’s culture of voting.

In the 2018 midterm elections, 48.6% of registered VCU voters cast a ballot, compared with the national voting rate of 39.1% across all college campuses. And in the 2016 presidential election, 61.5% of VCU students voted, outpacing the national voting rate of 50.4% among all higher education institutions, according to the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement.

VCU was recognized last year with a Gold Seal award from the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge in recognition of its high rate of campus voter participation.

It’s a fun opportunity for students in terms of learning about how to run a digital campaign, but then of course the goal is also to get out the vote and to promote voting.

Yumna Rahman, a sophomore in the Department of Biology and a member of the Honors College, is the team leader for VCU Votes’ Instagram account, which saw its number of followers double in the first week since launch. She decided to take the class to keep up with news about the election while also contributing to its get-out-the-vote mission.

“I hope to learn about everything I need to know to help and persuade others to register to vote while also getting a perspective on how adaptable we must be with such a campaign as the means of spreading the message has to change with the times,” Rahman said. “By no means am I an expert on all things voting, but I certainly hope to be closer to that by the end of the semester.”

While the class’ social media messaging is not only targeted to the VCU community, Rahman said she is particularly interested in encouraging voting among VCU students.

“The college student demographic is extremely powerful, if only it could become united enough to fulfill its potential to significantly influence an election and have our issues represented on the platforms of much older candidates,” she said. “The main idea is to convince our peers of their own importance in every election if they want to see the change that they talk about all year round.”

As part of the course, the students are reading “One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy,” a 2018 book by Carol Anderson, Ph.D., that explores the history of efforts to suppress African American voting participation. The book is also VCU’s 2020-21 Common Book.

This is the third time the VCU Votes course has been offered. The pandemic, however, has led to a number of changes. For one, the class is being taught as a hybrid, with some students in-person while others are online. And in the past, students in the class have been required to participate in in-person voter registration drives and other events. This year, that requirement has been waived.

Judi Crenshaw, a VCU instructor of public relations and member of the VCU Votes Advisory Council, said the pandemic has added a different set of challenges for the VCU Votes students’ work, but they are gaining valuable experience in digital communications and strategy.

“They are really having to figure out a second layer to all of their messaging because of COVID,” Crenshaw said. “They can’t just say, ‘Go to their nearest polling place’ or ‘Get a mail-in ballot.’ There are just a lot of complications in everything that they’re trying to communicate.”

For Witherspoon, the class’ work is “critical especially because this election year is unlike any in recent memory.” During the last presidential election, she said she followed the race and encouraged friends to vote, but didn’t participate in any organized voter engagement efforts.

“I felt that I hadn’t done enough. I decided that I never wanted to feel like that after an election again, so I learned how to register voters and researched our state’s voting processes. I led a homeless voter registration drive before the 2018 midterms and was looking forward to similar outreach this year,” she said. “Unfortunately, I have an autoimmune disease and am very wary of COVID-19.”

“I was ecstatic when I saw VCU Votes would be offered this fall because I wanted to have weekly actionable steps I could take from home to encourage voter engagement,” she said. “I hope to get a better understanding of Virginia’s voting infrastructure as well as tools I can use in the future to empower voters.”

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