Teaching for First-Time Voters


With a U.S. general election coming up on Tuesday, I’ve been encouraging my students to vote. I included voter registration information in my syllabuses, sent out email alerts as the state registration deadline approached, and explained the basic registration rights of college students in class.

I’m sure some students are voting by absentee ballot in home counties or states. (Pennsylvania does not offer early in-person voting.) For those who registered locally, it’s time to do what I can to encourage personal turnout.

The first time you do anything can be intimidating, especially if you’re doing it alone. That can be especially challenging for traditional undergraduates—especially first-year students, who may be doing a lot of things on their own for the first time. There are other obstacles for many students, too, including a lack of transportation or work and childcare responsibilities. Some students may have heard confusing information causing them to think the process is much more taxing or unreliable than it is.

I can’t solve all of those problems, but I can try to ease anxiety. One of the most helpful things to do for first-timers is simply to walk them mentally through the process of voting, so they’ll have a basic idea of what to expect (including how long it takes) and how to act. I had the advantage of accompanying my parents to the polls often as a child, making it easy to transition to voting on my own; not everyone has had that advantage, but maybe I can help a little with that.

So today I’m going to take a bit of class time to talk about the polls. I’ll describe (and show a sample of) the local ballot, explain how to find your Pennsylvania polling place, describe what happens when you walk in, etc. And I’ll describe basic troubleshooting approaches in case anyone has trouble with the process.

In one of my courses, this is an especially natural thing to do: In the U.S. survey, we’re talking about democracy in the Jacksonian Era. So I’m going to disguise my whole get-out-the-vote discussion inside an examination of how balloting has changed over time.

I’m fairly proud of that idea.

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