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New web tool helps break student voter registration record

Customized online tool and registration process raise bar for civic engagement

Students registering other students to vote.

EVANSTON - A new online voter registration tool, reframed especially for use at Northwestern University, contributed to a record-setting 96 percent voter registration rate for incoming freshmen this fall. Combined with strategic in-person registration initiatives, Northwestern is shaping the national standard for best practices to engage young voters.

NU Votes, an initiative of the Center for Civic Engagement (CCE), launched a new online tool this year that makes it easier for students to register to vote. Students can register, review and change voter registration information and request absentee ballots all on the same site, NUVotes.org.

NU Votes is also sponsoring in-person voter registration drives all week, Sept. 26-30, at Norris University Center on the Evanston campus. An additional drive is scheduled for National Voter Registration Day, today, Sept. 27, at the Arthur Rubloff Building on the Chicago campus.

NU Votes ensured that nearly every freshman on campus had the opportunity to register to vote their first day on campus. Registration stations at residence halls on move-in day and specially trained staff and student volunteers at the student ID office helped the University to more than double the number of registered freshmen voters by the end of their first day on campus, setting a new voter registration record.

In addition to voter registration efforts, Northwestern is dedicated to improving voter education and participation throughout the election season. The University will offer free shuttle rides for those wishing to participate in early voting and will help promote election events, like debate watch parties, leading up to Election Day.

The Northwestern Pritzker School of Law also plans to cancel classes on Election Day, Nov. 8, to allow law students time to vote or volunteer at poll locations.

Continue reading for more detailed information on Northwestern’s groundbreaking efforts to increase the level of civic engagement among students.

Customized online tool

This fall, Northwestern launched a new online tool for the Northwestern community in partnership with the non-profit Vote.org. Launched in time for the 2016 election, NUVotes.org is a customized voter registration site, designed specifically for Northwestern students.

“It’s as close as you can get to a one-stop shop for voter registration,” CCE Associate Director Rob Donahue said.

The tool allows anyone in the Northwestern community – students, faculty or staff – to check registration status, register to vote, update registration information and request an absentee ballot.

Vote.org provides a similar service for all eligible voters, but NUVotes.org adds an additional layer to simplify the process for college students.

“The one-size-fits-all national ballot is confusing for students who have a choice of where they want to register,” Donahue said.

Students have a right to register at either their college address or their home or permanent address.  NUVotes.org has a layer of embedded notes and instructions to alleviate any confusion that may result from a form designed for working adults.  The site also directs students to a host of in-person resources that NU Votes offers to help students complete additional tasks required by certain states.

In-person registration

In addition to online registration, Northwestern has set a national example for in-person registration drives. With strategically placed registration stations, the University aims to touch every student setting foot on campus for the first time.

During Wildcat Welcome week at the start of the school year, NU Votes set up tables at each Welcome Center in residence halls across campus, ensuring that each freshman had the opportunity to register before settling in to their new homes on campus. The University also enables students to register to vote when they obtain their WildCARDs (Northwestern student ID).

“These initiatives make it nearly impossible to miss us,” Donahue said.

NU Votes made contact with at least 1,600 of the more than 1,900 incoming freshmen during Wildcat Welcome. About 45 percent had registered to vote before arriving on campus. By the end of move-in day, 96 percent of incoming freshmen were registered. That’s the highest percentage recorded since NU Votes started in 2011.

NU Votes is hosting additional registration drives this week to assist with new or changing voter registration needs. 

  • Norris University Center (main level)
    1999 Campus Dr., Evanston
    Sept. 26-Sept. 30
    10 a.m.-10 p.m.
  • Arthur Rubloff  Building (atrium)
    375 E Chicago Ave, Chicago
    Sept. 27
    9 a.m.-5 p.m.

Each station will be equipped with laptops, printers, copiers and scanners – all the tools needed to register to vote in each state.

Illinois is among 32 states that make it possible to register completely online, provided the registrant has a government-issued photo ID or Social Security Number. However, many states require additional steps that cannot be accomplished online, such as providing signatures, photocopies of IDs, notarized forms and mailing to county-specific addresses nationwide. Staff at the registration stations are equipped to educate and assist students with all of these requirements.

For students heading to an in-person registration station, Donahue recommends bringing a government-issued photo ID, such as a driver’s license or passport, just in case it is required by their state.

Students can also register year-round at the CCE office, 1813 Hinman Ave., Evanston.

Voter participation

Voter registration is just the first step in a long process of civic responsibility. CCE will also lead efforts this fall to improve voter participation on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 8.

Northwestern will run periodic free shuttles to the City of Evanston Civic Center, 2100 Ridge Ave., Evanston, during early voting. Shuttle service is available to anyone with a WildCARD. Polls will also be established on campus during the Nov. 8 election. The schedules for shuttles and poll locations have not yet been announced.

The Northwestern Pritzker School of Law announced plans to cancel classes on Election Day to allow students time to vote or volunteer at poll locations.

In an effort to coordinate and amplify existing and new voter engagement resources, CCE and Student Affairs will also help promote election events, such as debate watch parties, sponsored by faculty, departments, student groups or outside groups.

National model

Northwestern serves as a model to many peer institutions as they aim to engage young voters.

The federal Higher Education Amendments of 1998 require colleges to make a “good faith effort” to register students. While most schools allow volunteer groups to engage in registration efforts on campus, few incorporate university-led initiatives like Northwestern does, according to Donahue.

“Northwestern really lives up to the spirit of the requirement, not just the letter,” Donahue said.

Northwestern has helped mold a national model for voter registration efforts, earning grants to develop voter engagement strategies at colleges including Stanford University and, more recently, a host of Chicago-area colleges and universities, including Loyola University Chicago, which more than doubled its registration rate for the incoming class of 2020.

Topics: Politics

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