On a crisp, fall-like morning, a small group of Normandale Community College students milled around a blue-bannered table strategically placed in a bustling corridor outside the school bookstore. Clipboards in hand, they set out to talk to a steady stream of undergraduates heading to and from class.

Unlike at other booths scattered throughout the Bloomington campus on the first week of class, the goal wasn't to help peers choose their courses or join one of dozens of clubs active at the two-year college. Their mission: register fellow students to vote.

"If you want something out of life, you should be able to voice it out," said Mariel Woods, a 19-year-old member of the Student Senate. "Voting is a big part of that."

Turnout among young voters surged across the country in the 2018 midterm elections. In Minnesota, more than 43% of eligible voters between the ages of 18-29 cast a ballot, one of the highest rates in the nation. On college campuses, turnout has historically been even higher. An analysis by researchers at Tufts University found that nearly 60% of Minnesota students voted in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available.

But participation isn't consistent across all institutions. Voting at private and four-year universities in Minnesota outperforms the rates among students at two-year community and technical colleges, the Tufts study found. Registration and voting levels drop significantly among students of color.

"One of the things we're most concerned about is the participation gap, particularly between white students and students of color," said Mike Dean, executive director of the statewide two-year college student association LeadMN. "We tend to have a higher percentage of students of color and underrepresented students at community colleges, so we really want to address that gap."

The back-to-school registration drive, now in its third year, is meant to jump-start efforts to do just that. Student volunteers at about 20 of 30 campuses in the Minnesota community and technical college system are conducting events similar to the one at Normandale for the first week of class, Dean said. Targeting students on welcome week, when they are already in transition and exploring new opportunities, seemed like a natural fit.

"Students are getting back to campus, they're getting their books and getting their classes and we're also asking them to register to vote," Dean said.

The canvassers active in Bloomington on Thursday had to get a little creative, and, at times, aggressive, to get the attention of their peers. Outfitted with nametags and smiles, Normandale Student Senate President Joshua T. Medley and other volunteers intercepted backpack-toting passersby with questions aimed at getting them to look up from their conversations or phones. "Are you registered to vote?" "Do you think you're paying too little for tuition?"

"I'll get a bowl of candy," Medley proposed, returning minutes later with a plastic dish filled with Skittles, Starbursts and Tootsie Rolls.

But even the lure of free sugar couldn't persuade some hurried students to pause as they navigated a labyrinth of corridors connecting the school's buildings between periods. For every person who stopped, a handful of others would wave off the organizers with some variation of "late for class!"

Others paused to see what was going on, but said they were already registered. Those who did stop said convenience and opportunity were big draws. Iqra Ahmed, a 17-year-old nursing student, didn't realize until she came across the table that she could preregister now, as long as she would be old enough on Election Day.

"I just feel like everyone should have the right to choose the president they want," she said. "Since we live here, if we choose the president we feel comfortable with, it's better."

Medley said he believed their efforts were making a difference. Two hours into the drive, they had collected several dozen completed registration forms to submit to election officials for review and processing. By the end of the day, the pile would grow to 77.

The 2020 election is more than 400 days away. But for Dean, connecting with potential voters during a nonelection year is a big part of the goal. The hope, he said, is that repeated contact and discussion about voting and politics more broadly will create "lifelong engaged citizens."

"We're interested in making voting more habit-forming," Dean said. "It's not this transactional process that the political candidates sometimes engage in. So we don't just talk to them about voting, but how can you have your voice heard through this whole process."

To help achieve that goal, organizers sought to go beyond collecting registration paperwork. They answered questions about eligibility and voting and distributed information about getting involved in campus advocacy and government. In addition to registration forms, they circulated cards asking students to pledge to encourage a friend to vote next year (LeadMN will text them a reminder as the election nears).

"Students aren't heard because they don't go out and vote as much," Medley said. "When it comes to Normandale my hope is that, [as] community colleges, we can all take a note from each other and grow our grassroots voting movement so that student voices are reflected in our choices in politicians."

Torey Van Oot • 651-925-5049