Vote Your Voice Georgia: Student activists empower voters

A generation ago, voter registration on college campuses usually looked something like this: a folding table in the corner of a quad somewhere, a handmade sign or two, a stack of registration sheets from the local voting precinct and perhaps a few student volunteers trying to draw the notice of others rushing to class.

No more. On hundreds of campuses across the country, voting registration and voting itself is increasingly sophisticated, integrated into every facet of campus life. 

Signing up for classes? Register to vote. Picking up your dining hall pass? Register to vote. Getting your campus ID or parking pass? Register to vote!

There are apps to help students learn where and how to vote. There are administrators whose job descriptions include easing obstacles to student registration and voting. There are sophisticated databases to track student involvement with the political process and squadrons of student volunteers who knock on dorm room doors.

The changes didn’t happen by accident.

The landscape began to change in the lead-up to the presidential election of 2016. And leading the charge was an organization founded by students and former students, Students Learn Students Vote Coalition (SLSV).

Through a combination of funding savvy, strategy and enthusiasm, the coalition has helped more than 800 higher education institutions harness the power of the 1998 Higher Education Act to turn their campuses into hubs for student voter registration and engagement.

The SLSV is the recipient of a two-year, $400,000 grant from the Southern Poverty Law Center to help it ramp up voter engagement efforts before the 2024 elections and sustain the work through 2025.

The coalition is among 68 organizations working in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi that have been selected to receive grants this year through Vote Your Voice, an SPLC initiative conducted in partnership with the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta.

“Voting is foundational to our democracy – and that foundation is under attack across the Deep South,” SPLC President and CEO Margaret Huang said. “The work of these grantees is paramount to ensuring that the voices of voters of color are heard in the 2024 local and national elections and beyond. Together, we will build a stronger, more inclusive democracy where everyone can thrive.” 

The SPLC launched Vote Your Voice in 2020 with $30 million in grants to help ensure voter participation and representation for Black communities and other communities of color across the Deep South. It was later expanded to a 10-year, $100 million initiative.

2022 National Voter Registration Day at Clark Atlanta University, where SLSV has helped to boost student civic engagement. (Courtesy of SLSV)

Suppression of student voters

The SLSV initiative came in response to a history of suppression of the student vote. Ratified in 1971, the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18. But with the Vietnam War in full swing and campus activism challenging the status quo at that time, the votes of young Americans were contentious as soon as they became a factor in elections.

As the new voting age became ingrained in the American psyche, obstacles to increasing the student vote remained. Registration and voting processes differed from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Few college campuses had campus polling places, forcing students without transportation to travel miles to vote. Even if they registered, students were often intimidated by lengthy, sometimes confusing ballots. 

In 1998, the Higher Education Act required colleges and universities to distribute in-state registration forms to students before general or special elections for federal and statewide offices. But colleges and universities, especially those serving large numbers of students of color and those in rural areas, have long struggled to find the resources and the will to make student voting a priority. Plus, the U.S. Department of Education has devoted few resources to enforcing the provision, and many college administrators had never even heard of it.

“We saw this as low-hanging fruit,” said Clarissa Unger, executive director of the SLSV Coalition, about the organization’s push to get colleges and universities to implement voting registration on campus, a push that led Unger and others to found the organization.

“The law was on the books, but there was a hesitancy to use it. And so we said, well, we know there’s a lot more that could be done, and this is already law. So let’s do what we can to support local campus leaders who are interested in engaging students in elections. If colleges and universities were actually providing voter registration for students, we knew that would be a great way to welcome new voters into our electoral process.”

And it’s working.

Between the 2014 and 2018 midterms, and between the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, youth voter turnout increased by double digits. In 2022 – the first election during which it made up the entire 18-to-24 age group – Gen Z voted at a higher rate than any previous generation in its first turn at the ballot.

The Vote Your Voice grant will help SLSV expand its operations to more campuses in the Deep South, provide money for administrators and faculty to engage directly with students and boost campus registration drives on civic holidays.

The funding, announced in late October, came through just in time, Unger said, to make travel stipends possible for low-income students from Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi to attend the National Student Vote Summit led by the SLSV Coalition at the University of Maryland, College Park and in Washington, D.C., in November.

‘Them against the world’

At Clark Atlanta University – a research university that was the first historically Black college or university in the South when it was founded in 1865 – the collaboration with SLSV has been central to efforts to boost student civic engagement, said Teri Platt, associate professor of public administration and director of the honors program at the university. 

About 89% of students at Clark identify as Black, and many, Platt said, come from homes where searing historical memories have instilled a wariness about voting. After the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin sparked the Black Lives Matter movement in 2012, the deep frustrations of Black students over police brutality and voter suppression further impeded engagement efforts, Platt said.

“It was them against the world,” Platt said, recalling a particular group of students studying urban politics with her in 2019. “They were just really unhappy with the policies they saw at work around them and frustrated with the political process. Getting them involved with mobilizing voting was instrumental to convincing them there was something they could do to shape the political process.”

One first-year student grew up in foster care and confided that she felt threatened and unprotected in the foster system, Platt said. After studying political activism in the class with Platt, the student created a plan for boosting voting and civic engagement on campus. 

“She really had that urgency,” Platt said. “She felt she had grown up all alone just trying to survive, and that pushed her to want to have an impact and make change.” 

That plan became the foundation for a series of initiatives on campus and for the design of what became one of SLSV’s central outreach programs, Ask Every Student. Today, Platt, who helped design the program, sits on the SLSV Coalition Executive Committee. 

Through the program, now in force on scores of college campuses, voter registration is integrated into existing university systems. Administrators, for example, partner with the coalition to send emails and postcards to enrolled students with information on registration, where to vote and why their vote matters.

Universities organize phone banks, give students access to a broad range of information on candidates and issues and work with ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft to get students free or discounted rides to the polls. On some campuses, faculty members register students to vote in class and reach out to individual students multiple times to make sure they register to vote, have a plan to vote and cast a ballot. 

The efforts have yielded results.

In 2016, 41.5% of eligible students at Clark Atlanta voted. In 2020, the voting rate climbed to 65.3%, according to the National Study of Student Learning, Voting, and Engagement, administered by the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tisch College at Tufts University.

Separately, Platt and other university administrators reached out to the Board of Elections in Fulton County, where Clark is located, to establish a voting precinct on the campus of the 4,000-student university – because some students walk miles to vote and others must go to a precinct in a hard-to-find building on the outskirts of campus. 

In October, the request was granted. In 2024, Clark Atlanta students will be able to vote in their new student center, right in the middle of campus. 

Students sit on a panel in front of a PowerPoint presentation. The slide reads

At the 2023 National Student Vote Summit, Bianca Rosales, SLSV’s associate director of partnerships, moderates a panel on collaboration. (Courtesy of SLSV)

Here is a look at the other Vote Your Voice grant recipients in Georgia this year and how they plan to use their funding:

PROGEORGIA – Grant Amount: $500,000 

ProGeorgia is a statewide coalition of more than 50 grassroots organizations fighting for equality and inclusion in elections for and with historically underrepresented communities. It seeks to ensure that communities of color can gain electoral representation that matches their population in the state. The Vote Your Voice grant will help its partner organizations register voters for the 2024 elections, provide Georgians with information and resources to help them overcome obstacles to voting, coordinate poll monitoring around the state, conduct civic engagement programs, and engage volunteers to help voters cast ballots free from the threat of violence or intimidation. 

ASIAN AMERICANS ADVANCING JUSTICE – ATLANTA – Grant Amount: $450,000 

Asian Americans Advancing Justice is the first and largest nonprofit legal advocacy organization dedicated to protecting the civil rights of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian communities in Georgia and the Southeast. The organization’s Vote Your Voice grant will allow it to bolster language and other support needed to ensure Georgia’s Asian American and Pacific Islander immigrant communities can successfully register and vote. The grant will also allow the organization to monitor polls to protect voter rights; provide transportation, interpretation and hotline assistance; and offer up-to-date information to communities on changes to polling locations, election procedures and election deadlines.

FAIR COUNT – Grant Amount: $400,000

Founded in 2019 by Stacey Abrams, Fair Count strives to build long-term power in communities that have been historically undercounted in the U.S. census, underrepresented at the polls and often torn apart by redistricting. This Vote Your Voice grant will be targeted to Fair Count’s initiatives to increase Black voter turnout in rural counties as well as across Georgia. Fair Count will also use the funding to distribute and collect more than 25,000 commit-to-vote cards during 2024, test the effectiveness of its direct-mail campaign and deepen its partnership with, among others, the Georgia Justice Project to provide voting resources to people impacted by the criminal legal system.

GEORGIA JUSTICE PROJECT – Grant Amount: $400,000

Georgia Justice Project provides free legal representation to people in the criminal legal system at all stages, from arrest to reentry. With the SPLC grant, the organization will partner with voting and canvassing organizations to ensure that information on who can register and vote as well as how to vote is shared with formerly incarcerated individuals and others impacted by the criminal legal system. Additionally, the funding will allow for investments in voting rights hotlines and information cards, billboards, videos, radio spots and ads on public buses and bus stops in cities across the state. The grant also will fund data collection to build the case for future policy reforms. 

GALEO – Grant Amount: $400,000

GALEO strives to reduce barriers to voting, advocates for immigration reform, develops and upholds the work of Latinx leaders, creates opportunities for engagement and networking, and ensures that the concerns and contributions of Latinx people are recognized. When GALEO was established, Georgia’s Latinx community was not well represented, nor was it a viable electoral force. Today, there are more than 385,000 registered Latinx voters in the state. The Vote Your Voice grant will allow GALEO to meet its goals to register at least 3,200 voters over three years, track voter outreach with sophisticated computer software and connect with more than 1 million potential Latinx voters through town halls, media ads, phone and text banking, in-person canvassing events, and door-to-door outreach.

LATINO COMMUNITY FUND – Grant Amount: $400,000

Since 2018, Latino Community Fund Georgia has been the lead organizer, funder and convener of the Latinos for Democracy Coalition, a Georgia-based, Latinx-led collective of organizations working on education, mobilization and protection of Latinx voters in the state. The organization uses text and phone banking, mailers, door-to-door operations, community events and digital and traditional ads to help Latinx-led community organizations build capacity and sustain efforts while providing field work planning, guidance, training and support. The Vote Your Voice grant will help the organization train organizers and canvassers, hold community get-out-the-vote events, erect billboards, print and distribute posters and place print and digital ads. Some of the funding will go to its smaller partner organizations to further increase Latinx voter turnout. 

BARRED BUSINESS – Grant Amount: $380,000

To make progress toward its goal of re-enfranchising justice system-impacted voters, Barred Business plans to use the SPLC funding to expand canvassing and organizing operations and to mobilize and educate on rights restoration and protection of people who have been impacted by the criminal legal system. It plans to use texts, mailers and engagement events to mobilize voters, gather data on engaging voters and train at least four fellows to work for rights restoration and against discrimination in predominantly Black neighborhoods with low median household incomes and higher percentages of poverty, low voter engagement and high rates of criminalization and incarceration.

9 TO 5 GEORGIA – Grant Amount: $300,000

9 to 5 Georgia’s reach extends to more than 30,000 low-income women and families in Georgia each year, few of whom have previously had the opportunity to participate directly in social justice or grassroots campaigns. This Vote Your Voice grant will allow 9 to 5 to register and facilitate voting for the most marginalized people – women, people of color, queer and trans people, and those struggling to make ends meet. Funding will be allocated toward distributing pledge-to-vote cards and mailers, canvassing, voter education and protection and nonpartisan polling. The money will also help fund a host of community engagement activities on issues of concern to low-income women and their families. 

WOMEN ON THE RISE GEORGIA – Grant amount: $300,000

With its Vote Your Voice grant, Women on the Rise Georgia plans to provide education inside prisons on voter rights restoration laws so formerly incarcerated people can become eligible to vote sooner. It is also working to get out the vote in rural areas. The goal is to reach 60,000 people over the next two years and conduct registration activities, with a focus on those who are formerly incarcerated. The funding will help grow the organization’s capacity to offer political training, civic engagement and educational opportunities for Black women who were formerly incarcerated and to produce at least one video on voting following incarceration.

RESTOREHER US.AMERICA – Grant amount: $300,000

RestoreHER US.America seeks to end the cycle that leads to mass incarceration for women of color and pregnant women in the South. Since 2022, the organization has disseminated voter education information to more than 1 million people and mobilized thousands to register to vote. In this election cycle, the organization plans to use the SPLC funding to rent signage on billboards, launch social and digital media campaigns, and set up phone banks to raise awareness and build trust and confidence in the community’s electoral power and collective voice. The organization will also use the funding to host warrant clinics, expungement clinics and community events with faith organizations and community leaders.

GEORGIA COALITION FOR THE PEOPLE’S AGENDA – Grant amount: $300,000

Since it was founded in 1998, the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda has focused on registering, educating and mobilizing voters through phone calls, texts, door-to-door approaches and registration events. This Vote Your Voice grant will help the coalition increase the number of counties served by its signature program, the Democracy Squad; its school board monitoring program; and its jail voter registration program. It aims to register more than 10,000 voters, give rides to the polls to more than 1,500 people and knock on more than 30,000 doors as it encourages people to register and vote. 

COLLECTIVE RENAISSANCE GEORGIA – Grant amount: $300,000

Understanding that 33% of rural and non-college-educated Black people under 35 in Georgia participated in the last presidential election, the Collective Renaissance aims to increase this number by 20%. It plans to do this by bringing civic participation education to places where young people socialize, work and live. The SPLC grant will help Collective Renaissance train 25 leaders in targeted counties to become effective community organizers, host 35 or more events in environments that people aged 18 to 34 frequent and organize a dozen or more intimate focus groups on civic engagement. The organization also plans to use this funding for quantitative tracking and analysis of its efforts and its success rate with surveys and other data collection.

COMMON DEFENSE EDUCATION FUND – Grant amount: $300,000

In this election cycle, Common Defense Education Fund aims to increase civic engagement among Georgia veterans around voting rights and veteran voter participation. The project funded by the SPLC grant will focus on civic engagement of Georgia veterans – a population that comprises nearly 700,000 Georgians, or 7.6% of the state’s residents – and communities living on and around military bases. It aims, among other goals, to train 50 veteran leaders through fellowships, grow membership in its corps of veteran organizers, publish 10 op-eds, and contact 500,000 Georgia voters through in-person canvassing and text and phone banking.

DELTA RESEARCH AND EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION – Grant amount: $150,000 

Since its founding in 1913, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority has prioritized social action and service, with a heavy focus on voting rights. With the SPLC grant, the sorority’s Delta Research and Educational Foundation plans to mobilize 24 collegiate and 36 alumni chapters across Georgia to register voters and get out the vote through chapter-based social action activities. It also aims to partner with the Georgia ACLU to advocate for more polling locations and observers on college campuses and in communities across the state for primary and general elections. It will employ community workshops, digital outreach and other methods to engage young voters on their rights, the mechanics of voting and the mechanics of the electoral process.

GEORGIA MUSLIM VOTER PROJECT – Grant amount: $150,000

Georgia Muslim Voter Project seeks to address low rates of civic engagement among Muslims. Canvassing door to door and working to build trust in Muslim communities, the project registered 871 voters in 2022 and had registered 415 by August 2023, surpassing its combined goal of 700 for both years. With the Vote Your Voice grant, the organization plans to build on its Youth Ambassador program holding more than 30 educational workshops and 15 community conversations. It plans to register more than 1,000 voters and, through digital and in-person outreach, encourage tens of thousands of Muslim voters to cast ballots. 

COBB COLLABORATIVE – Grant amount: $100,000

While the Cobb Collaborative has long sought to increase the participation of voters from a wide range of backgrounds, its efforts have ramped up in recent years, funded in part by previous Vote Your Voice grants. This grant cycle, the organization plans to use the SPLC funds to establish voter outreach internships at various high schools and community colleges. It plans a social media push to meet voters, especially young voters, where they consume news and information, creating posts about how to register, where to find polling locations, how to find nonpartisan candidate information and how to vote. It plans to develop digital toolkits and other materials to register young voters and voters of color at events, workshops, online and in person. It also plans to use the SPLC funding to analyze its effectiveness through implementing surveys and collecting data through other quantitative methods.

A BETTER GLYNN – Grant amount: $50,000

Considering recent legislation in Georgia to clean up voter rolls, A Better Glynn, founded three years ago in Glynn County, will use the SPLC funding to ensure that voters are not unjustly purged from the rolls. The organization, which fights apathy and despair among underserved populations, will also try to counter difficulties faced by voters who were affected when the local board of elections cut down weekend voting hours by encouraging and helping people to vote early. The funding will include money to hire a voter registration and get-out-the-vote coordinator, to hold candidate forums and to deploy hundreds of canvassers.

MIGRANT EQUITY SOUTHEAST – Grant amount: $50,000

Migrant Equity Southeast advocates for social and political representation of migrants and refugees, helping provide housing assistance and health care options, and boosting civic engagement in five South Georgia counties. With a goal of ensuring political representatives are attuned to the needs of and seek to serve Latinx and immigrant communities, members of the organization over the past two years have knocked on more than 6,400 doors and distributed more than 8,000 pieces of voting literature to eligible voters. The SPLC funding will enable the organization to reach students on college campuses; reach potential voters via text, phone calls and in person; combat voter suppression in rural communities; and train staff to be poll monitors. 

PEACH CONCERNED CITIZENS – Grant amount: $45,000

Established in 2018 to boost the participation of Black eligible voters in six counties in rural Georgia by 15%, Peach Concerned Citizens more than doubled that goal in its first year. With the SPLC grant, the organization is planning sports events to engage youth in the region and to sponsor town halls with candidates, barbecues and other events to increase voter participation.

Photo at top of story: At the National Student Vote Summit, Bianca Rosales, SLSV’s associate director of partnerships, moderates a panel on collaboration Nov. 16, 2023, at the University of Maryland, College Park. (Courtesy of SLSV)