In early October, two opponents for a seat in Virginia's House of Delegates took turns laying out their political stances in front of a small, intimate crowd.
But this wasn't a typical town hall. In this case, they were fielding questions from some 60 stone-faced students gathered in the common room of a dormitory on James Madison University's campus.
The students, seated on a hodgepodge of dorm chairs and couches, drilled them on the usual issues raised by the college-aged voting bloc: gun laws, climate change and rising student debt levels.
The candidates were on the last stop of one of James Madison's traveling town halls, in which political opponents and their staff members cram into a single white van and ride around campus to give speeches and take questions at three dormitories.
Starting in 2018, the university has used these events as a novel way to help fulfill its institutional mission to increase civic engagement among students. And it's one of many schools hoping to capitalize on the nation's heightened interest in politics to get students ready to vote ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
Yet casting a ballot isn't always an easy process for college students. Many students, for instance, mistakenly think they can't vote in the elections local to their campus. And even if they'd rather place their vote in the races at home, they can face restrictive or confusing procedures to mail in their ballots.
Even so, the average student voting rate doubled to 40% in the 2018 midterm elections from 19% of eligible voters in 2014, according to the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education (IDHE), which tracks students of all ages. Colleges and politicians alike are hoping to build on this momentum to create a culture of voting among students.
"No single mobilization effort, voter administration rule, charismatic candidate, or hot policy issue is responsible for voter turnout increases and decreases," IDHE Director Nancy Thomas wrote in the report. "[B]ut clearly something is happening on college and university campuses that warrants closer examination and even replication."
Getting students to the polls
Last year was marked by heightened political energy among Americans, but college students saw especially large increases, IDHE's report points out. Part of this could be due to colleges' increased focus on their students' voting rates, which many institutions didn't know until 2014, when IDHE first started sending them individual reports with this information.
The 2014 student voting rates were a "wake-up call" for many schools, driving them to implement campuswide initiatives to boost civic engagement, Thomas said.
But it went beyond voter registration drives, with colleges baking the importance of political action into the curriculum and campus culture, she noted.
At James Madison, those efforts were brought together in 2017, when it launched its Center for Civic Engagement. Along with its traveling town halls, the center is behind several initiatives meant to foster political engagement on campus.
Those include events such as tent talks — in which students gather under white tents on campus to learn about and discuss hot-button issues like impeachment and immigration — and resources to help students decipher what information online can be trusted and what can't.
Campuses where important political issues were openly discussed tended to see higher student voting rates, Thomas said. James Madison's student voting rate has more than tripled, from just 9% in 2014 to 33% in 2018.
Colleges must address the technical aspects of voting, too.
At James Madison, part of that responsibility falls on Angelina Clapp, a senior political science major who works as a fellow at the university's Center for Civic Engagement.
After the candidates wrapped up their segments during the traveling town hall, she stood in front of the students in a purple t-shirt with "Dukes Vote" emblazoned across the front and urged them to register to vote. In all, 12 students registered during the event, she said.
Other campus initiatives help as well, Clapp said. "We'll go into (classrooms), and students might not have heard about the upcoming general assembly election," she said. "But then when we talk to them about it, they get really excited."
'The difference between winning and losing'
For politicians, James Madison's town halls are a chance to reach a critical segment of voters directly.
Brent Finnegan, the Democratic candidate for the Virginia House seat, knows how important opportunities like this are to get his message out to students. In a district with around 80,000 people, James Madison enrolls more than 20,000 students, though all of them may not be registered to vote locally.
"In a low-voter-turnout election, I mean, this could be the difference between winning and losing," he told Education Dive at the event.
That's especially true in a swing state like Virginia.
"We are through and through purple here," Alex Rodriguez, a political science junior and the chairman of James Madison's College Republicans chapter, said of the campus.
More than 20 of the chapter's members came out to support the incumbent candidate, Republican Tony Wilt. Some even went door-to-door canvassing for him before the election.
"Students continue to be a more and more important voting bloc," Wilt told Education Dive at the traveling town hall. "That's why I'm here. I see that." When he won reelection in early November, by 1,548 votes, he even thanked the College Republicans during a speech aired by James Madison's student-run broadcast.
But as student voting rates have grown, so too have voter suppression efforts. In the past few years, many states have enacted laws that could hamper students' ability to vote, such as by requiring them to get in-state licenses and vehicle registrations and placing restrictions on using student IDs, or causing voting stations on or near campus to close.
Many lawmakers bill such efforts as clamping down on voter fraud — though claims of widespread fraud lack evidence, The New York Times reported. But others don't disguise their motivations.
In 2011, New Hampshire's then-House speaker, a Republican, called on the state to crack down on student voting, saying they were "kids voting liberal, voting their feelings, with no life experience."
Lawsuits have sprung up. A federal judge recently ruled that a Virginia county had to allow 171 George Mason University students to vote in a local election after their registration applications were rejected for designating the campus as their address.
And in Texas, students at Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college, have sued the county the university is in after officials provided fewer early voting hours for the college town than three nearby cities that had a lower share of black citizens.
The lawsuit alleges this discriminates against African American students, many of whom have packed schedules or a lack of transportation that makes it difficult for them to get to the polls on election day.
"Universities and other institutions should be pushing their representatives to provide opportunities to vote (and) working against restrictive policies like photo ID laws," said Leah Aden, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund who is working on the case. "There's so much that universities and other institutions can be doing to make voting more expansive."
Ready, set, vote
Colleges can do their part to educate students about these issues. In October, Brown University's Swearer Center, which aims to increase students' community engagement, screened "Rigged: The Voter Suppression Playbook," a documentary detailing a decade-long effort to quash the votes of young and nonwhite citizens.
The campus has taken other measures as well, which have helped triple its voting rate from 13% in 2014 to 45% in 2018. For instance, all Brown students have access to TurboVote, an online service they can use to register to vote, apply for absentee ballots and learn about key election dates.
"There's a wave happening right now, particularly with young people in the United States, that is encouraging more civic engagement, that is promoting ways of being involved and politically aware," said Ethan Morelión, a senior political science major who serves on the Swearer Center's student advisory committee. "With that already being present in our generation, our job then becomes figuring out ways to make that process easier for students to engage."
At Ferris State University, a midsize college in Big Rapids, Michigan, officials stoked political engagement ahead of the 2016 presidential election by holding debate-watch parties replete with snacks, games and prizes. "We really tried to make it a party atmosphere," said Kristi Scholten, a communications professor at the university.
In 2016, after Hillary Clinton said half of Donald Trump's supporters should be in a "basket of deplorables," Ferris State officials turned the political gaffe into a game.
During a debate-watch party, they handed out red and blue beads to students and asked them to put them into a "jar of deplorables" any time they agreed with what a candidate said. At the end of the debate, whichever student could come closest to guessing how many beads were in the jar won a prize.
"It was silly things like that, but it created more of a fun atmosphere while still encouraging them to listen and engage in what was being said," Scholten said.
Other universities have competed with each other to see how many students they could get to vote.
Ahead of the 2018 midterms, for example, leaders of the 14 universities in the Big Ten conference announced they were going to compete to see which school could get the most students to the polls.
The universities hosted the competition on the All In Campus Democracy Challenge's website, which holds competitions to see which colleges have the highest or most-improved student voting rates.
A low-student voting rate at the University of Michigan — just 14% in the 2014 midterms — spurred the Big Ten competition.
"That was quite shocking," said Edie Goldenberg, a political science and public policy professor at the university who has helped spearhead the challenge. "All of the (Big Ten) campuses looked at their numbers and said, 'Oh my goodness, we really should be more helpful in this space.'"
At the U of Michigan, students and campus officials helped students register to vote during orientation, handed out roughly 1,000 stamps for mail-in votes and notified students of the steps required to cast their ballots.
The university also included new course offerings focused on voting and civic engagement. For instance, Goldenberg helped teach a joint public policy and film class last year that taught students how to create public service announcements to encourage voter registration.
And two professors taught an elective called "Voting is Sexy" with the mission to make the political act "irresistible." Students even created a video (below) for the class that explained Michigan voting laws that could trip students up, such as requirements that first-time voters do so in person.
Two universities were crowned winners in the competition: the University of Minnesota, for the highest voting rate, and Rutgers University, in New Jersey, for the most improvement in turnout. The conference is holding another contest for the 2020 election.
However, all participating institutions saw their student voting rate surge. "I'd say everybody won," Goldenberg said.