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Innovative student voter model earns national recognition

University receives five awards recognizing success in enhancing student civic participation
Rob Donahue award
Rob Donahue, associate director of Northwestern's Center for Civic Engagement, accepts the ALL IN Challenge award for standout administrator at an Oct. 19 ceremony in Washington, D.C.

Northwestern University was recognized as a national leader in promoting civic engagement among college students at a national awards ceremony.

Voter registration increase 2012 to 2016

The University received the following five awards at the ALL IN Challenge Award Ceremony on Oct. 19 at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

  • Highest voting rate among large, private 4-year institutions
  • Most improved voting rate among all U.S. universities
  • Most improved voting rate among all private 4-year institutions
  • Most improved voting rate among large, private 4-year institutions
  • Standout administrator award honoring Rob Donahue, associate director of Northwestern’s Center for Civic Engagement (CCE)

Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was among the speakers at the event, hosted by the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, which recognizes colleges and universities for their commitment to promoting political engagement on campus.

The awards are based on 2012 and 2016 data from the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement (NSLVE), a project of the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University, which tracks voter registration and participation rates at more than a thousand colleges and universities throughout the country. 

Highlights from the data:

  • 91 percent of Northwestern students (including all undergraduate and graduate students) were registered to vote in 2016, compared with a 71 percent average across institutions

  • 64 percent of all Northwestern students voted in 2016, compared to a 50 percent average across institutions

  • Northwestern is one of only nine institutions in the country that saw a 15 percent or higher increase in voter participation between 2012 and 2016

Donahue attributes Northwestern’s high level of civic participation to a series of initiatives launched through the Center’s “NUVotes” program that began in 2011.

"We’ve worked with colleagues across campus – students, faculty, staff, administrators and community partners – to try to make responsible civic engagement a cultural norm at Northwestern,” Donahue said. “The fact that our student voter turnout increased between 2012 and 2016 at a rate higher than 99 percent of other colleges and universities across the country shows that universities can indeed help students develop as thoughtful, engaged citizens when they take the civic component of their mission seriously."

Voter registration and participation rates

“NUVotes” efforts include in-person voter registration stations, which are folded in as part of the orientation process as each new student arrives on campus. At these stations, a CCE representative walks each incoming student through the registration process. Stations compile registration and absentee ballot request forms for all 50 states and D.C., giving students the option to register at either their home or college address. CCE volunteers guide students through each step of the registration process and even mail the forms for them.

Additionally, CCE operates “Voter Vans” to shuttle students to polling stations during elections, and CCE ensures that the “NUVotes” program maintains a presence on campus throughout the year, hosting activities to build awareness and enthusiasm about voter participation.

"Folks often dismiss young people as apathetic. But this work demonstrates that when young people are given a consistent, accessible and understandable opportunity to register to vote, the vast majority will choose to do so.  And that, in turn, has a substantial impact on the youth vote,” Donahue said.