Northwestern pushes students to register, vote


Daily file photo by Creighton Bledsoe

Members of the League of Women Voters conduct a voter registration drive at Burger King in Evanston in 2008. As the 2012 election approaches, Northwestern is attempting to remove obstacles to student voters.

Lauren Caruba , Assistant Campus Editor

As the 2012 election heats up with the first presidential debate Wednesday, Northwestern is attempting to counteract voting barriers for college students by increasing opportunities to obtain absentee ballots.

The issue of voter suppression reached the national stage this year, with legislation recently passed in states like New Hampshire and Georgia requiring students to provide more specific types of identification and obtain residency in the state where they plan to cast their vote.

No such laws exist in Illinois. Still, the University hopes to push students and staff to the polls with “NU Votes,” a campus-wide voter registration day in both Evanston and Chicago.

Organized by NU’s Center for Civic Engagement, the initiative involves setting up voter registration tables at three locations in Evanston and one in Chicago. NU students and staff can go to Norris University Center, The Rock and the Technological Institute in Evanston and Abbott Hall in Chicago to register or obtain absentee ballots.

“There have been more laws passed in the past year and a half about access to polls and access to voting than in the last decade,” said Robert Donahue, associate director of the Center for Civic Engagement.“It has gotten substantively harder over the past year for college students to vote.”

NU Votes will attempt to overcome these barriers by providing a convenient, centralized location for obtaining information regarding voting and absentee ballots, which must be mailed by a certain date, Donahue said.

In addition to these new laws, a number of issues can hinder the voting process for college students. The frequent address changes college students experience can make keeping registration up to date difficult, and individuals can only cast their votes in the area where they are registered.

Weinberg sophomore Laura Stoughton knows how important it is to ensure her current address matches her registered voting location. In mid-August, Stoughton moved to Texas from New Hampshire, and now she is back on campus for classes this fall.

“It’s definitely a strange time,” Stoughton said. “My address has changed about four times in the past six months or so.”

Stoughton said she will be voting via absentee ballot this election because she is registered to vote in Texas.

Voting for college students is further complicated by the fact that requirements vary from state to state. In Illinois, voters must be registered 27 days before the election. States such as Michigan and Tennessee do not allow citizens to both registrate and vote through the mail: at least one process must be completed in person.

This issue is especially relevant to NU students, who come from many different states. NU Votes will have the registration information and absentee ballots for all states available.

“Voter registration is incredibly complicated,” Donahue said. “Every state has its own process, their own laws, their own forms. We have to be on top of 50 different systems.”

The somewhat old-fashioned nature of the voting system may also play a role in voting among college students, said Becca Portman, a fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement.

Portman said the nature of America’s current voting system, which still involves technology only minimally, could put off younger voters who have been using the Internet since a young age.

“The voter registration system is kind of an archaic and complicated one,” the SESP senior said. “It’s mostly paper-based. The voting system doesn’t fit in with the way our generation thinks about things.”

This is the second year that the center is pushing the NU Votes initiative. Last year, members of the Class of 2015 had the option of registering to vote as they waited in line to receive their WildCARDs.

NU’s promotion of voting has had a significant impact on the Class of 2015, Donahue said. About 40 percent of students were already registered to vote, and almost 90 percent of the class was registered by the end of Wildcat Welcome, Donahue said. This year, the Center for Civic Engagement decided to expand the event by including all NU students and faculty members on both campuses, he added.

Other campus groups are also encouraging students to vote this year, including residential colleges, said Stoughton, who is co-social chair on the executive board of Willard Residential College.

Students will have the opportunity to watch the televised presidential debates during the dorm’s group munchies, Stoughton said.

“It can be kind of a hassle to vote on campus,” she said. “We’re trying to push it and get people informed so they can make an educated vote.”