UMSL honors and interdisciplinary classes promote voter engagement

Students in Charlie Herrick’s “American Traditions: Social and Behavioral Science” class worked a voter registration table in front of Villa Hall for four days at the end of September. Class members registered at least 30 students over the course of the week. (Photo courtesy of Charlie Herrick)

The University of Missouri–St. Louis has regularly been recognized for its commitment to civic engagement and voter participation.

However, UMSL students and staff were not content to rest on those laurels as the country heads into the 2020 presidential election in November. During the fall semester, two classes have been working specifically to promote voter engagement as part of their syllabi.

Charlie Herrick, adjunct professor of political science, is teaching “American Traditions: Social and Behavioral Science” in the Honors College. It’s a class he describes as akin to honors American government. Scott Gericke, assistant teaching professor of art and design, and Anita Manion, assistant professor of political science, collaborated on a new interdisciplinary class called “Vote 2020: Your Voice Matters.”

As part of Herrick’s class, students ran a touchless, socially distanced voter registration table near the entrance of Villa Hall on South Campus. They operated the table for several hours, four days in a row toward the end of September in an effort to meet Missouri’s Oct. 7 registration deadline and Illinois’ Oct. 18 online registration deadline.

Herrick taught the same class during the last presidential election and has taught similar courses at other universities in the St. Louis area, but this was the first time he had organized a registration drive. Though it was only one aspect of the course.

“It’s a three-part class project,” Herrick said. “The first thing is that students needed to present our voter registration flyer, which includes QR codes to register instantly on a mobile device, in a class other than mine. The second portion is the socially distanced, touchless voter registration table in front of the Honors College right near the shuttle stop. The final component is a one-page reflection on their experience – how it made them feel, what they learned, anything they’d like to comment about – with this voter registration project.”

The students registered about 30 new voters, which Herrick viewed as a success, especially considering there are only 15 students in his class and the disrupted foot traffic due to COVID-19 precautions on campus.

“I really had no expectations going in, so any registries were a positive outcome,” he said.

Gericke and Manion’s class focuses on awareness and education campaigns, using community building and branding to increase voter engagement on and off campus.

“There’s one team focused on getting students to vote on campus, which isn’t too tall of an order because the university is already doing such a great job,” Gericke said. “The second team is focused on the community surrounding UMSL. I think that team probably has the bigger challenge.”

Members of the both groups worked on specific tasks to drive engagement.

“Within those different audiences, we divided them into social media teams, voter education teams and event teams,” Manion said. “They will be working in groups to try to engage voters at UMSL and the surrounding community to get registered to vote, to get educated and ready to vote and to understand the process – especially this year with lots of confusion around mail in balloting and absentee balloting.”

The UMSL campaign was dubbed “Power 2 the Polls” and uses vibrant colors and a 1970s aesthetic in the logo and social media and marketing materials. Gericke said the design choice is a way to differentiate the campaign from the university’s broader efforts and a way to capture attention on social media.

The name also contains a duel meaning.

“When you come to register, bring your friend,” Gericke explained. “Find a friend that hasn’t registered and bring them. The idea being, two is better than one. I think it’s an interesting underlying message.”

The community campaign, “Stay Woke, Go Vote,” is geared toward getting people to understand the differences they can make at the ballot box. The campaign branding uses mostly blues and reds, with the “O” in woke being an eyeball design.

“It’s getting the younger people to pay attention and understand that they can make a big difference if their voices are heard,” Gericke said.

Initially, it was intended to target communities within a two-mile radius of UMSL. However, COVID-19 limited the in-person activities that had been planned, which allowed the students to broaden the campaign’s reach to all of North County and some rural areas through virtual events.

To market both campaigns, students have launched accounts on social media channels such as TikTok, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Manion noted this is an effort to reach young voters in particular. They also hosted events via Zoom such as debate watch parties and panel discussions on ballot measures like Missouri’s Amendment 3. Additionally, both groups have produced clear, concise guides to in-person, mail-in and absentee voting.

The ultimate goal of these efforts is to create trusted, nonpartisan sources of information, as one of the biggest barriers for prospective voters is feeling overwhelmed or uninformed. Gericke and Manion believe the resources their students created will help people create a voting plan so they know how to vote, when to vote and what they want to vote for.

In both classes, students come from a variety backgrounds, bringing numerous perspectives and levels of political activeness to the projects.

Herrick’s class is primarily made up of freshmen and sophomores in the Honors College. He said their knowledge of voting and the machinations of government are mainly informed by what kind of civics education they received in high school and don’t necessarily align with general demographic categories.

“The baseline for my students really varies widely,” he said. “That’s one of the challenges of teaching the class, catching everybody up but also keeping students that already know some of this challenged.”

In this year’s class, Herrick found that the Electoral College was a point of interest.

“The Electoral College was definitely something that a lot of students don’t fully understand,” he said. “They either overestimate its importance, as in votes don’t count at all, and the Electoral College picks at its discretion whoever it would like to be president, or they underestimate or aren’t aware of it and think that the popular vote decides the winner.”

Gericke and Manion were very intentional about bringing together a group of multifaceted students. Their class was cross listed with the Department of Political Science, the Department of Art & Design, the Gender Studies Program and the Honors College. Manion added that they have students with wide-ranging majors, including business administration, psychology and social work.

“One really important foundation that we tried to lay in this class is having our students understand the history of voting rights and voter suppression in the United States,” Manion said. “I think getting that background was really eye opening and motivating to our students to understand that we have not had universal suffrage and there are barriers to voting still today for a lot of people.”

Herrick hopes his students will take the lessons they learned beyond his classroom and the upcoming presidential election and pointed to a range of issues, including the cost of education, that are decided at state and local levels.

“The state budget is set in Jefferson City by our state representatives. When all the excitement and hubbub and press dies down for presidential election, keeping engaged and voting in those off year elections, midterm elections and local elections is the next step in getting students to really represent themselves.”

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