May Membership Spotlight

In recent weeks Illinois Campus Compact has been sponsoring and marketing voter engagement projects, including College Election Engagement Project mini grants, the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, and our Campus Election Project Graduate Assistant. These all have a similar goal in increasing voter engagement on college campuses.

Our membership institution, University of Illinois at Chicago, has proven a form of expert on this front. Last year, on October 19th at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., UIC received the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge’s Champion Award for being the most engaged campus and a bronze seal for achieving a student voting rate between 50 and 59 percent.

Spencer Long, who oversees Student Leadership and Civic Engagement at UIC, gave us some insights and tips on how institutions can make a similar impact. Modestly, Long insisted that some of the reason UIC was so successful was because of luck. After describing their events and efforts though, it is clear that a lot of hard work was the catalyst for this increase in voter turnout.

When UIC students arrive on campus for orientation, one of the first things they are asked is if they are registered to vote. If they can be, and would like to be, they are registered on the spot. Long says that this was huge for them. 2,000-3,000 students were registered before the semester even started.

Along with registration at orientation, voter engagement events were held frequently. Long described Constitution Day, Rock the Vote events, mock elections, debate watch parties, and many more. For Long, the key to these events were keeping them fresh and exciting. The drone of election season can be felt by everyone, the last thing universities want to do is add to this. To combat repetitiveness, Long held events such as “Red White and Bowl,” where students could bowl and enjoy themselves all while watching debates.

Not only were voter registration events held, but Long said that they did not let up once registration was over. Campus bustled with voter education and encouragement.  Students were asked to sign pledges to vote and contribute to campaigns such as, “I Vote Because.” He also said that he never turns away the opportunity to work with an organization. His job is not to filter the information that students see, but to give them all of it he can, and let them educate themselves.

A particularly interesting event held was “Soup and Substance,” which goal was to educate students about voting. For many students in college, it might be their first time voting. The point of “Soup and Substance” was to teach them exactly what voting will look like. They talked about what identification might be needed, if you are allowed to bring in paper, if you have to vote on every item, and what your ballot will look like. This discussion is often overlooked, but can help students be more comfortable and even more willing to vote.

Long and I discussed some of the reasons why students decide not to vote. It is not that students do not care, it is that some do not believe that voting is an agent of change. Students are reluctant to vote because they don’t see the good that it produces and they don’t believe their congressmen or local officials are working for their best interests. Many students turn to advocacy to get engaged because they feel like it makes a larger impact and it feels more tangible. To tackle this issue, Long says he thinks it’s best to have peers speak with each other. Students connect better with each other, and can understand other students more than an older staff member simply telling them to vote.

Long said that a helpful tool they developed was the Civic Engagement Core Group. All throughout campus, faculty, staff, departments, and organizations, were doing civic engagement and voter turnout work, but not everyone knew what was happening and when. What the Civic Engagement Core Group did is brought all that together. This has helped them market events better, and get a bigger understanding of what is already happening on their campus.

When asked if Long had any tips for institutions that wish to follow in UIC’s footsteps, he mentioned Students Learn Students Vote resource page. Every school is very different, and the culture of every school can effect student’s relationship with voting. Long said that many of these resources gave him a starting off point. He was able to identify what UIC already did, and look for the next steps within these tools.

As our conversation wound down, I asked  Spencer Long what his goals and hopes for voter engagement at UIC were. To no surprise he said he wants to continue to increase voter turnout, shooting for numbers around 80%-90%. He also said that he wants it to become part UIC’s identity. He wants the culture at UIC to be students asking “You didn’t vote?” instead of, “You voted?”