No matter your opinion on politics, everyone can celebrate our university’s newest triumph in voting numbers. After the 2016 presidential election, ETSU was recently awarded the highest honor of “Most Improved” in the SoCon Votes competition.
SoCon Votes is a project by the Foundation for Civic Leadership. The FCL is a is a “non-profit organization dedicated to engaging the next generation of global citizens,” according to its website.
“This just helped us see that it really did make a difference,” said Director of Adult, Commuter and Transfer Services Carla Warner, who helped lead the effort. “It reinforced very clearly that this time was well-spent because we moved a needle. We really improved our student voting rate. It would be really nice to have it continue to improve some.”
“Most Improved” goes to the school with the highest growth of voter participation from the previous presidential election. ETSU increased by 9.5 percent from 2012 to 2016. Warner said the anticipated growth of student voter participation is usually 2 percent.
“I didn’t know if this was ho-hum and if Wofford has like a 20 percent [increase,]” Warner said. “I didn’t know where we stood, and now I’ve found out that we were really amazing.”
The honor is even more important as this was the first championship, according to Warner. Now ETSU will always be the first champion of SoCon Votes.
Warner was first introduced to SoCon Votes by Associate Vice President for Student Engagement and Dean of Students Jeff Howard in early spring of 2016. Warner was contacted later in the summer by SoCon Votes to begin working on the initiative at ETSU.
SoCon Votes initiatives on campus included debate and election night watch parties, social media campaigns, student voter registration ambassadors, dialogue sessions from various groups and more. Warner said the one requirement was dialogue had to be neutral. Ideas could be shared but not forced.
“You can talk about an issue that’s a fact,” she said. “You know, this is how it is, or this is what we believe without saying you have to believe it. For students that have never perhaps talked with anyone on the other side of an issue, we thought that was helpful.”
The university also helped students find out if they were already registered to vote and how they could register. Out of state students could get information for early voting, obtaining an absentee ballot or registering to vote in Tennessee by receiving a new state license.
Warner said one goal was to get students to think about voting in advance so they did not miss voting on election day and had a plan for casting their ballot.
“Early voting grew, which we really wanted it to,” she said. “That was something we wanted students to do.”
Although planning began in May 2016, the initiative began materializing at the beginning of the fall 2016 semester up until the presidential election.
In order to participate, ETSU had to have representatives from different offices and organizations, and a 17-member committee was formed.
“I was relying a lot on the efforts of folks that were on this planning team and that would help support and provide their talent and their resources all with the same goal,” Warner said.
Each participating school creates a “game plan” for SoCon Votes, which details how they will educate students in the voting process and prepare them to cast their ballot. The game plan is submitted to a SoCon Votes committee halfway through the competition, and the committee ranks the plans for potential. ETSU’s plan came in third place.
“Then when the data came in—the hard numbers came in—we actually won,” Warner said. “So our plan was probably better than third because it really, really worked.”
The SoCon Votes initiative was founded in 2016 by Mercer University graduate Joey Wozniak as a way to encourage voter participation among college students. The championship includes the 10 Southern Conference participants, including ETSU. SoCon Votes was intended to be framed like a sports competition among the 10 schools.
Wozniak presented the championship trophy to the ETSU Votes team, ETSU President Brian Noland and Vice President for Student Affairs Joe Sherlin in an on-field recognition in between quarters at the ETSU-Wofford football game Oct. 28 at William B. Greene, Jr. Stadium.
During the next championship, SORC Assistant Director Joy Fulkerson will be taking Warner’s place as SoCon Votes team leader at ETSU. Warner said she hopes to continue her involvement in the competition because she believes it has made a positive impact on students.
“I find [the results] very interesting and helpful for our civic education that we do,” she said. “Higher education systems are supposed to help with that as part of creating good citizens.”