Campbell Streator is Executive Director of Every Vote Counts, a student-led, non-partisan organization dedicated to increasing voter turnout.
Can you tell me about your organization, Every Vote Counts? Why do you believe that it is important to organize students around the issues of democratic participation and civic engagement?
Every Vote Counts (EVC) is a student-led, nonpartisan organization dedicated to increasing voter turnout and expanding voter access nationwide. We help students, chapters, and partners become hubs of civic engagement on campus, and all of the work that our students do falls into three areas: elections and voter engagement, civic education, and pro-voter advocacy and reform.
Organizing students is important because we need to fight the idea that student voters, and young Americans in general, are apathetic and unengaged. While that may have traditionally been the case, students today are eager to get involved. They just need help overcoming the legal, logistical, and informational hurdles they face. Between intentional suppression efforts and the overwhelming number of things grabbing for their attention, it’s easy for anyone but the most motivated students to get discouraged or distracted as they try to navigate participating in our democracy and becoming more civically engaged. If we can help organize students to remove those barriers, challenge social norms surrounding participation, and build a broader culture of engagement on campus, we will be taking important steps toward improving the health of our democracy more broadly.
You wrote an article in The Hill titled “Young Americans demand civic education – for good reason.” Why do you feel that students are yearning for civic education, and why do you feel that colleges are failing to provide it?
I think the desire for more civic education stems from the fact that students are more politically engaged than they have been in a long time, but they feel like the institutions that are supposed to prepare them to be active and informed citizens are failing to do so. There are numerous studies that point to the lack of basic civics knowledge, let alone a deeper understanding of the history of our democracy, among high school and college students, and students are beginning to make it clear that this is unacceptable. In a survey we ran in 2019, we found that roughly two-thirds of young Americans (those aged 18–35) believe “high schools, colleges, and universities should prepare students to be voters.” The results were even more conclusive among the 18–24 age group, as more than 70% of college students and recent graduates with university schooling still fresh in their minds expressed an interest in more civic education.
As far as why colleges have failed to meet the demand for civic education goes, I think it just has not been a priority. Curricula have been tailored to emphasize other subjects, and job placement of grads is more important to college rankings than civic preparedness. As a result, civic education has suffered.
Along with encouraging voter participation, Every Vote Counts promotes civil discourse on campus around important issues. Why is dialogue, especially on campus, important for the civic health of our nation?
If we want to revive democracy as it relates to young Americans and improve the civic health of the nation more broadly, we need to shift the paradigm when it comes to student voters, and cultivating dialogue on campus is an essential step. The American system of government relies on informed and engaged voters, but too often, engagement initiatives aimed at students focus simply on registration and turnout, while ignoring the civic education and access to dialogue and discourse that young voters need to feel like informed participants in our democracy.
What have been some of the practical challenges or hurdles for your student-led, grassroots organization? How have you overcome these?
Our biggest challenge lies in overcoming the fact that every campus, in every county and every state, is different. The issues are different; the access to resources and opportunities as well as the pre-existing efforts on campus and in the local community are different; and the specific aspects of our mission that students are interested in are different. This means that when we try to support those chapters, we have to create resources that are specific and insightful enough to add value, but flexible enough to be applied in a myriad of different circumstances. As a result, our goal is to provide students with tools that can empower them to identify where they can make impactful and sustainable changes on campus.
Another, more specific challenge we face—as a subset of that broader challenge—is overcoming administrative hurdles. While we are flexible as to the form our presence takes on campus, our goal most often is to support an ongoing student organization that can act as a hub for civic engagement on campus. Sometimes, though, whether it’s because of a similar pre-existing club or an administrative initiative, we run into campuses that are unwilling to recognize an EVC chapter as an official campus organization. When that happens, we do one of two things. If there is a pre-existing group or initiative on campus doing everything an EVC chapter wants to do, we agree that there is no need for clubs with duplicative missions and are happy to partner with the pre-existing organization. If not, we work to emphasize the holistic nature of an EVC chapter’s mission and stress the differences between the work it will do and whatever work a pre-existing organization might be doing.