Preparing for the 2020 Election

October 29, 2020

As the election approaches, I have heard from members seeking suggestions and resources to help them prepare for and respond to whatever transpires on and after November 3. Below, you will find practical ideas for fostering an environment that brings members of your campus community together both before and after the election. Before turning to those action steps, however, I think it’s important to spend a few moments characterizing the challenge these suggestions are intended to meet. If we don’t have clarity about the problem, it can be hard to know whether proposed solutions are likely to work.

At one level, the challenge results from the degree and intensity of polarization in our politics. Along with many others, students are fired up about the election. Many believe that if the election does not turn out as they hope, irreparable damage will be done to the country and to specific communities within it. That level of intensity makes it difficult to find common ground and engage in the respectful and civil ways self-government requires.

But if that were all that is going on, 2020 would be different from previous elections—if at all—only in degree. Most of us recognize that the difference this year is deeper and is a difference in kind. It can be awkward for those of us at non-partisan organizations to talk about this difference, but our credibility with students depends on doing so. For the first time in the history of the country, we have a candidate in a presidential election who has pointedly and repeatedly refused to indicate that he will accept the outcome of the election. The same candidate has refused to condemn—and has even implicitly praised—Americans who have threatened or used violence to achieve their aims. That combination is dangerous for our republic and has specific implications for higher education.

Here are some practical steps members can take on campuses to prepare for a successful post-election period:

  1. Schedule a post-election deliberation event for your campus. You might schedule a series of deliberative dialogues in the month of November, or you might designate one day or evening for several simultaneous dialogues. We recently held a training on facilitating online deliberative dialogue in partnership with Up to Us. You can access the training and related materials by signing up at Share it with interested colleagues as a way of building a team of trained facilitators for a campus-wide event. Most of our Newman Civic Fellows have also been trained by Campus Compact as facilitators. If you have a Fellow on your campus, reach out to see whether they might participate. We suggest using one of the National Issues Forum prompts. The prompt called “A House Divided,” focused on polarization and how to overcome it, may be a particularly good choice.
  2. Advocate for your campus to be added to the Day on Democracy map, indicating the practices you are embracing to enable student participation in Election 2020. Share the same information with your campus community.
  3. Remind everyone in your campus community to vote.
  4. If you don’t have policies formally releasing students from classes to vote or serve as a poll worker, encourage faculty to take the importance of voting into account when responding to students who miss or are late for classes. If you do have such policies, spread the word about them. In many places, lines at the polls will be long, and students have no control over that fact. This year will also see a historic number of students working as poll workers (Campus Compact alone has recruited over 4,700 students who will take on this important role). Affirm to students that participating in the process is important!
  5. Encourage everyone in your campus community to be patient if election results are not known immediately. While it is possible that the victor in the presidential election will be clear late on November 3, it is also possible that will not be the case. It is important to acknowledge in advance that this year’s election may involve a lengthy period of vote counting and that a delay does not imply nefarious activity. The period after the polls close and before a result is known represents the greatest opportunity for confusion and disinformation. Informing members of your campus community about the expected delay may reduce the likelihood that people will see a delay as evidence of bad action.
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