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Student voter registration exceeds 96 percent

NU Votes helps incoming Northwestern students register during onboarding process

EVANSTON - As Northwestern University’s class of 2021 moved into their residence halls last Monday, Sept. 11, only 39 percent of eligible students began the day registered to vote. By the end of the day, that number had skyrocketed to 96.4 percent.

The driving force behind the increase this year, and over the past seven years, was NU Votes, an initiative launched by the University’s Center for Civic Engagement in 2011 to increase student voter awareness, registration and participation.

The program’s recipe for success is that it seamlessly integrates voter registration into the onboarding process as students move into their residence halls during Wildcat Welcome orientation week. When students stop at one of NU Votes’ five booths across campus on move-in day, they meet face-to-face with an NU Votes representative who helps them sign up.

The Center even has begun teaching the successful model to other universities including Stanford, Loyola and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The main goal of the program is to combat the historically low voter turnout for people under the age of 30. It’s also a source of pride for the University to motivate students to engage in their civic duty.

“This helps us send a message to incoming students right from day one that we value civic responsibility at Northwestern,” said Rob Donahue, associate director for the Center for Civic Engagement.

“We know that culture and norms have a lot of influence on if and how folks choose to participate in a democracy. People are much more likely to vote and participate in other civic activities if they’re involved in communities where that sort of social responsibility is seen as a norm.”

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One of the values of Northwestern is that we care about civic engagement

Rob Donahue
Associate director, Northwestern University Center for Civic Engagement

Universities around the country often grapple with how to increase student voter registration and participation. A 1998 amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965 required all colleges and universities, as part of their federal funding, “to make a good faith effort to distribute voter registration forms to each student in attendance.”

Northwestern used that as merely a jumping-off point when it launched NU Votes, which provides all the necessary materials students need to register to vote at either their home address or college address.

“The bar is set fairly low by the Higher Ed Act, which requires institutions to at least send an email about in-state voter registration to all enrolled students. But effective registration efforts are especially challenging at national universities like Northwestern, where a majority of students come from states other than Illinois,” Donahue said. “We thought, ‘What if instead of just meeting the bare minimum, we actually meet the spirit of the requirement and give students everything they need to register themselves in one stop?’ We have found that this approach has a remarkably higher impact.”

Northwestern now joins forces with a larger effort by the Big Ten Conference, which last Sunday, Sept. 17, launched its Big Ten Voting Challenge in recognition of Constitution Day and ahead of National Voter Registration Day (Sept. 26). 

The Big Ten Voting Challenge is a nonpartisan initiative that seeks to increase voter registration and turnout among college students on all 14 campuses of the Big Ten Conference.

“One of the most important values we teach at our universities is the importance of civic engagement. Voting in elections gives our students a voice in the democratic process and in the decisions that affect local, state and national issues,” said a letter signed by all Big Ten university presidents and chancellors including Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro.

The presidents across the Big Ten Conference have each pledged $10,000 to be used on their respective campuses to promote student civic engagement. At Northwestern, the NU Votes team is collaborating with a committee of campus leaders to build on the University’s past success in voter engagement in order to make registration and turnout even stronger in the coming years.

 After the 2018 election, trophies will go to two universities – the one with the highest eligible voter turnout and the one with the most improved turnout compared to 2014.

“Research shows that the folks who are most likely to vote are the people who have voted before,” Donahue said. “So the question becomes when do you get people started in the system? And for too long, as a nation, we haven’t made it very easy, particularly for those who move a lot or are in transition like college students. At Northwestern, we’re trying to make it easier for young people to get started in the process so they’re more likely to begin a lifetime habit of being active, responsible citizens.”

For more information on NU Votes, visit