While they may not realize it at the time, most incoming Northwestern students have interacted with the Center for Civic Engagement after their very first day on campus. Waiting in a seemingly never-ending line to pick up their WildCARD, for many, registering to vote is just another step in the process.
However, for CCE, voter registration is just the tip of the iceberg. Around seven years old, the CCE team targets all corners of civic life, which it does through both academic and community initiatives. According to CCE Director Dan Lewis, its mission is simple: “Make it easier to be a citizen while you’re a student.”
With the 2016 election rolling around, CCE and its allies are ready to support the Northwestern community in all facets of civic life.
Perhaps CCE’s most far-reaching achievement is its voter registration program, known on campus as NU Votes. First implemented in fall 2011, the program was CCE’s response to low voter turnout among college age citizens. Although federally-funded universities are required under the Higher Education Act of 1998 to “to make a good-faith effort to distribute voter registration forms to every student, and to make those forms widely available on campus,” according to CCE’s Associate Director Rob Donahue, many schools were missing the mark.
“There was sort of the spirit of it and the letter of it,” Donahue said of the act. “The letter of it is pretty simple. Basically, if you send out an email to your students and say ‘Hey, you should think about registering to vote’, [that technically meets the requirement].”
However, Donahue said, CCE was more focused on the spirit behind the legislation.
“What we know about voter engagement is that there are fewer younger folks involved than older folks, and a lot of that has to do with the habits,” Donahue said. “So obviously, it’s going to be better for democracy, as well as a good civic habit for our students, if we get them started early.”
When pondering methods to streamline a voter registration process on campus, Donahue said CCE planners looked at historical examples such as the Motor Voter Act for inspiration; the law required states to offer voter registration to anyone applying for or renewing a driver’s license.
“We thought, geez, at college campuses, we do that sort of thing all the time. We’re registering you for classes, we’re getting you student IDs, we’re getting you keys to your res hall. The whole process of going to college is an administrative process in a lot of ways,” Donahue said.
Working with the Office of Student Affairs and the WildCARD Office, CCE decided to implement their own version of the Motor Voter Law during freshmen move in, a time when all incoming students were already required to pick up IDs and fill out paperwork.
Due to the collaborative effort, the pilot program ran smoothly and the results were astounding. According to data collected in the program’s first run, “the freshman class registration rate skyrocketed from about 40 percent to nearly 90 percent, and almost 1,000 students registered to vote in 37 different states.”
It was clear that the Center for Civic Engagement had hit on something big.
After seeing the results of the NU Votes program at Northwestern, according to Donahue, other colleges and universities reached out to CCE to help them implement similar strategies on their own campuses. The model became known as the UVote Project.
“Over the past five years, we’ve worked with a bunch of different campuses,” Donahue said, including schools in the Chicago area such as DePaul and the University of Illinois at Chicago, but also universities much further away, like Stanford.
Like the NU pilot program, the UVote Project was also extremely successful. Across participating schools, the average percentage of registered eligible students jumped from 41 percent to 92 percent, and the program registered 9,100 students in 2012 alone, according to a report provided by CCE. Donahue said that this summer, CCE will be working with around 10 more colleges and expanding the project even further.
However, the UVote Project is not the only point of communication between CCE and other universities. According to Donahue, the center is always trying to work collaboratively with its educational colleagues “on shared civic issues.”
In October 2016, Lewis said, 20 to 30 students will have the opportunity to attend the National Student Issues Convention and meet peers representing universities from all over the country.
The event will hopefully lead to a “broader set of conversations for students with people they wouldn’t necessarily have them with,” Lewis said.
Despite their successes, Donahue said CCE cannot do everything, and it often connects with outside resources from across campus. One such resource is political science professor Thomas Ogorzalek, who, along with fellow department professor Jaime Dominguez, has been working to educate the community about the inner workings of Chicago politics.
The Chicago Democracy Project “is mostly about is about developing a user-friendly database of Chicago political information that will be available to … groups interested in analyzing politics in order to achieve some goal,” Ogorzalek said. In doing so, he and Dominguez hope to help people engage in their local community.
Ogorzalek said that if Northwestern students were more involved in local politics, such as in Evanston, they would have a decisive impact.
“Evanston is going to have an election later this year and probably, somebody with 10,000 or 20,000 votes will become the mayor,” Ogorzalek said. “Northwestern undergrads could basically decide who the mayor of Evanston is. It probably won’t happen, but they could.”
In the recent primary election, for example, Ogorzalek said, there was record turnout in Northwestern’s district in the precinct, according to information passed along to him by Evanston officials. If NU students continue to engage in local politics, change is numerically possible.
For CCE and its partners on campus, civic engagement is important to encourage not only in college, but throughout a student’s entire life. For students who already know they are passionate about the field, there are educational resources available to turn that passion into a future career.
One path for such students is the Civic Engagement Certificate Program, a CCE and SESP collaboration. Taking courses in a variety of community issues, the program is designed to help students be equipped with the skill set to spark social change in the real world.
And if students are interested in public sector work, Lewis said, they will soon have a brand new resource at their disposal. The Public Service Career Initiative will launch next fall.
According to Lewis, the goal of the new initiative “is to do what the school does for private sectors with public sectors,” providing career services support and networking opportunities. In addition, it will serve as a guiding path for students who don’t know how to turn their passions about civic life into a job.
“[It’s] kind of like an advising program on steroids,” Lewis said, and will look for the best courses and internships to make students competitive for employment in the public sector.