Back in January of 2012, TurboVote had one partner school, our first grant had only just come in, and I was struggling with how to run payroll for the first time. That month I hired a dynamic young organizer, Sam Novey, on one condition: fly to Miami for two weeks with no travel budget and get three colleges that are a little bit interested in TurboVote signed on as partners. Over a dozen trips to Florida later, we’ve come a long way.
Last month, Senator Bob Graham announced in front of a packed audience of student affairs professionals from across the country that Florida was now “leading the charge” with 38 colleges and universities from across the state institutionalizing voter engagement with the help of TurboVote. He was sharing some breaking news. The Florida College System (FCS) had just announced a new partnership with TurboVote to bring our tool to 27 state and community colleges—making this is the first system-wide project of the FCS Civic Literacy Initiative, which aims to make civic engagement part of the experience of all 850,000 students enrolled in the system.
Bringing this partnership to life required some serious teamwork. Our first few Florida colleges were all introduced to us through the Knight Foundation. Funding from Knight and the Democracy Fund helped us keep a team of talented organizers focused on this opportunity for over a year, and funding from the Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions at St. Petersburg College is what made the whole FCS expansion ultimately possible.
This is a big deal. FCS is how most Floridians access higher education – 65 percent of the state’s high school graduates begin their postsecondary education at one of the system’s colleges. And our partnerships are serious long-term love fests, not fly-by-night flings. When TurboVote partners with a school we provide them with a co-branded website and work with administrators on how to institutionalize TurboVote into their student services by integrating our site with class registration, freshman orientation, or other school-wide student experiences.
When students sign up, TurboVote helps them become active voters for the rest of their life. First, we’ll help them register to vote by emailing and mailing a completed registration form along with a pre-addressed, stamped envelope, then send text message reminders about deadlines. After that, we start tracking all their elections—local, state and national, and if students wish to request absentee ballots, we’ll send them all the forms and information they need along with pre-addressed, pre-stamped envelopes. Finally, for every election, TurboVote repeats the process, sending text message and email reminders with important election information, dates and deadlines, to ensure that they never miss another.
However, what’s most exciting about this news was that the move to institutionalize voter engagement was a notably bipartisan effort. Republican Congressman Lou Frey, who founded the Institute of Politics and Government at the University of Central Florida, is also a supporter of the TurboVote effort.
In the words of Congressman Frey, “the adoption of TurboVote by the Florida College System will provide a pathway to a lifetime of participation by the state’s youngest citizens.” Frey knows what he’s talking about. He helped sponsor the legislation leading to the adoption of the 26th Amendment in the 1970s that first gave 18 year-olds right to vote. And now he’s challenging “every student in the state to use TurboVote’s easy website to register and help shape the future of America by voting in every election.”
As schools across Florida come together to bring TurboVote to their campuses, they are doing more than introducing the next generation to our democracy; they are serving as a model for the rest of the country. TurboVote is now at over 140 campuses and signing on more partners every day.
Seth Flaxman is Co-Founder and Executive Director of Democracy Works, a nonprofit dedicated to the idea that voting should fit the way we live.