College Republican National Committee

Political Activism for College Students

Despite making up more than half of the population, young adults (ages 18-30) often find themselves marginalized from mainstream politics and decision making. 

When given an opportunity to organize, voice our opinions and play a meaningful role in political decision making, young adults consistently demonstrate our willingness and ability to foster positive, lasting change. We also become more likely to demand and defend democracy, and gain a greater sense of belonging.

College campuses provide a multitude of opportunities for young adults to interact with diverse populations, exchange ideas, join organizations, and develop skills to think critically about the world we live in.

No matter your political viewpoint or worldview, it’s important to exercise your civic rights and stand for the messages you believe are worth it. Here are the 5 best tips for getting involved in politics as a college student: 

  1. Educate Yourself

Before you get into politics, you should know what you’re talking about and be able to hold an intelligent and thoughtful conversation about the issues. 

Read your local newspaper. Then read your state newspapers. Then read national publications: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and more. Whatever you can get access to, read it; with so many magazines and papers being published online now, accessibility has never been easier.

Start by picking a few topics that you care about or find interesting. They can be broad topics like foreign policy or immigration or more narrow topics like art education in public schools. One nice thing about democracy is that you choose what’s important to you. 

The next step is to learn about the structure of government. Which parts of the government are responsible for making and executing the decisions you care about?

It’s important to know who your local legislators and politicians are. First, find your House Representative, and enter your address to find a full list of your elected officials

Once you know who your elected officials are, talk to them! Tell them what’s on your mind: what concerns you, what you expect of them, what makes you proud to live in your state. Their job is to listen to you, so reach out frequently and respectfully to voice your opinions.

Here are some general guidelines on how to contact your elected officials

Once you start gathering information, share that knowledge! Have discussions with your friends and family. Engage in respectful debate when appropriate. Spread the word.

  1. VOTE, VOTE, VOTE! 

Voting is the most fundamental form of civic engagement in a democracy. This is the easiest and most effective way for anybody to make a difference. 

First, and most importantly: check your voter registration status in your state. If you aren’t already registered, make sure you REGISTER TO VOTE!

Registering to vote is a relatively simple process, and can be done in a few different ways. In general, registrants will need to fill out a form and provide some type of approved ID, like a driver’s license. A social security card or number may also be required.

  • In person: Especially during election season, students will find plenty of opportunities to register to vote in person. Often, canvassers walk around campus with registration forms and can help you fill them out. Otherwise, you can register to vote at your state or local election office, the DMV, armed services recruitment centers or public assistance offices.
  • Online: Online registration is available in 31 states and the District of Columbia. Vote.gov can help you determine if online registration is available in your state and, if so, direct you to the right form.
  • By mail: Students can pick up a registration form in person or download one from your state’s voting website, fill it out and mail it in with any other necessary documents.

When registering to vote, you can select a political party affiliation. While you may choose not to affiliate with any of the major political parties, it may prevent you from being able to participate in caucuses and primary elections. Closed primaries are generally reserved for members of the Democratic and Republican parties to determine the candidate that will represent each group in the main election.

If you’re not sure whether to consider yourself a Democrat or Republican, that’s okay! The Pew Research Center offers a Political Party Quiz to help determine where you stand on important issues. 

The next step is to learn your state’s voting laws. College students living outside of their home state may register to vote in either the state of their school or in their official state of residence. 

If you choose to register in your state of residence, you must register to vote in that state and request an absentee ballot for your state to be sent to your University postal address.

The Fair Elections Center offers an annually updated guide to each state’s voting laws. A quick Google search should turn up the website for your state’s secretary of state, who often serves as the chief election official. These websites include information on election dates, absentee voting and other issues. 

Another great resource for educating yourself on the voting process is Rock the Vote, which is geared toward helping young people vote and provides all the information needed to vote in each state. 

If you want to vote on Election Day, come up with a plan to make sure you’re going to the right polling place, and going when it’s open. This might mean going early in the morning, between classes, or at the end of the day. Even better, share your plan to others, in person or on social media, to help you stay accountable.

Take it one step further by hosting a voter registration on campus to inspire your peers. Here is a comprehensive guide to hosting your very own Voter Registration event

  1. Join a Student Organization

Discovering an organization in which to align your political ideals is a great way to start getting involved quickly. They already have an established power structure, goals, a way to execute their plans and a pool of resources that an individual may not possess on their own. 

There are generally political organizations on campus that cover the entire political spectrum, from liberal to conservative and everything in between. Most schools will have a registry, as well as a description of the group, posted online for other students to get involved. Keeping your eye out for groups that host tabling events, post flyers and are active on campus is the best way to find one without actively looking. Below are two organizations that are available to college students: 

College Republican National Committee

Find a College Republican Chapter in your state. 

Young Democrats of America

Learn more about this youth-led political organization

  1. Participate in or Organize Political Rallies

Don’t be afraid to advocate for a political issue that’s important to you. As a college student, you may be unsure about your political affiliation, but likely, you feel strongly about a variety of topics. Join a rally or march to add your voice to the choir. Or, if you want to be an organizer, hold your own awareness-raising event. 

Once you determine a pressing issue, learn all you can about it. Look for other students or community members that feel the same way. Work together to plan an event that will spread the word about your issue. Chanting, sign-holding and marching at an event might feel uncomfortable, but they’re powerful ways to get attention for your cause. If you have something bigger in mind, contact state or national groups that might be willing to help you out.

However, before you start protesting – learn the basics and take note of any important details. The American Civil Liberties Union’s guide to protesting rights will let you look up your state’s permit requirements and other prerequisites.

  1. Volunteer on a Political Campaign

Every political campaign – whether it be for your local school board, a state legislature, or Congress – needs hard workers, people serving as the boots on the ground.

Volunteering on a campaign can mean making phone calls (known as phone banking), sending text messages, or canvassing door-to-door to advocate for a political candidate. Every election cycle, campaigns rely on “on the ground” volunteers to spread grassroots enthusiasm about their candidate and their cause.

In the United States, the most popular form of volunteering tends to be for presidential campaigns, but the presidency is hardly the only office in American politics. First-time volunteers might find their time is more effectively spent advocating for local representatives, whose policies more directly affect their day-to-day lives.

In conclusion, the best place to start getting politically active is within your own mind, forming opinions and values based upon your experience and the shared truth of others. 

5 First Steps to Political Involvement in College 

  1. Educate Yourself
  2. Vote!
  3. Join a Student Organization
  4. Participate in or Organize Political Rallies
  5. Volunteer on a Political Campaign

No matter what your motivation is to get active, it’s important that you do. Without exercising your right to assemble and petition the government, nothing will ever change. It doesn’t matter where you fall on the ideological spectrum or whom you vote for, what matters is not being a passive citizen, but rather an active one that strives for better.

“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

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References:

  1. https://www.nytimes.com/guides/year-of-living-better/how-to-participate-in-government
  2. https://advocatesforyouth.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Youth-Activist-Toolkit.pdf 
  3. https://www.accreditedschoolsonline.org/resources/student-activism-on-campus/
  4. https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/promoting-student-political-engagement-and-awareness-university
  5. https://www.affordablecollegesonline.org/college-resource-center/student-voting-guide/#test2