Tales of political cooperation: Ball State University students work together to get out the vote

Vera H-C Chan

Americans have repeatedly told pollsters about their exhaustion over partisan politics. Seven in 10 independents clamor for compromise over confrontation. Battle-scarred politicians like Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, who cultivate thicker skins than armadillos, have cited the toxic environment on the Hill as a reason for retiring. Amid the overheated rhetoric, apocalyptic warnings and well-financed attacks, however, are tales of political cooperation, both small and large. Here is one in a series.

Sometimes just showing up is half the battle.

Ball State University may well be more than a century old, but the Muncie, Ind., school has been dubbed an up-and-comer. Beyond bragging rights in social justice, online education and even geothermal green energy, BSU might add a student body that can engage in civic discourse with civility.

Back in April, the BSU College Republicans held a debate among the five candidates running for Indiana's 6th Congressional District, and the University Democrats were among the students who attended. The real conversation, though, happened after the debate: Republican chair Kayleigh Mohler chatted with Democratic president Drew Farrington about co-hosting the first student-run debate.

"This isn't something that usually happens at Ball State, so we've been told," Mohler told Yahoo!. "[Club students] wouldn't work together for anything, they weren't willing to cooperate for any aspect."

A precinct split leads to unity
The political milestone wasn't just about two oppositional student groups working together. Until the 2010 census, Ball State University's 1,100-plus acres fell under two precincts. Demographic shifts split up the campus and surrounding housing into four precincts. For the first time, voting booths would be spread throughout Muncie rather than being concentrated on campus.

With many of the 19,000 undergrads just beginning to develop their political awareness, the inconvenience could make a student miss out on his or her citizenship privileges. The Democratic and Republican clubs, working with other campus groups, took on a threefold goal: Sign up 500 new voters, bring them the candidates, and educate them about absentee ballots and early voting or just get them to the voting booth on time. "Honestly," Farrington says, "Kayleigh and I share that goal: I don't care if they're Republican or Democrat. I want their voice to be heard."

Getting out the vote
According to a Tufts University study, "of college students who didn't vote, 66 percent reported not voting either because they were working, out of town or forgot," says Seth Flaxman, co-founder of TurboVote, a nonprofit that aims to be the Netflix of voting. TurboVote has partnered with nearly 60 colleges to help them in their mission to register students, as required by the Higher Education Act. Flaxman's own frustrations led to the Kickstarter-propelled project. "I missed so many local elections and I am not an apathetic person and it made no sense." Many of our democratic processes—such as voting on a Tuesday, a convenience for 18th-century land-owning farmers—don't fit by today's standards, he points out. "The biggest part of the participation isn't apathy. It's process."

Given that a high percentage of students who register also turn out to vote (about 84 percent), the Muncie students knew cooperation was key. On Constitution Day, the specter of young Democrats and Republicans working together had enough shock value to get attention: Fifty students registered just that day, and that was before volunteers wore the new T-shirts depicting both the elephant and the donkey.

Hitting their marks
Not that Mohler and Farrington weren't leery of friction. "I was afraid it was going to be heated," Mohler admits, especially among the "obviously partisan, strong-willed, stubborn people" who might respond heatedly to one bad tweet.

But even a rancorous election year hasn't sidetracked BSU students from hitting their marks: They successfully hosted the on-campus debate among 6th Congressional District candidates Democrat Brad Bookout, Republican Luke Messer and Libertarian Rex Bell; hit their 500-person registration goal well before Election Day; and are working out an agreement with the university for buses to shuttle students on Election Day.

There are limits. They nixed a university suggestion to have the two clubs watch the Oct. 3 presidential debate together, Farrington says. "There are lines we do have to draw."