NU Declassified: Northwestern students prepare for absentee voting, Iowa Caucus

DAN HU: Welcome to NU Declassified, a look into how Wildcats thrive and survive on Northwestern’s campus. I’m Dan Hu, and this week we’re looking at absentee voting. Most students at Northwestern aren’t from Evanston, and many aren’t even from Illinois. Many students are registered at home, meaning they’re voting for politicians in places they no longer live. With that comes confusion and a general lack of education around the process of requesting absentee ballots.

TERESA NOWAKOWSKI: I registered to get my primary ballot absentee, so that actually came in the mail yesterday. I’m super excited. It still has Julian Castro on it and stuff because they don’t have some of the dropouts because they prepared them early, but it’s fine.

DAN HU: This is Teresa Nowakowski, a freshman from Rochester, Minnesota, which votes for the primary on March 3rd, also known as Super Tuesday.

TERESA NOWAKOWSKI: Obviously, this is also my first time voting. But in Minnesota, at least, you can register to vote online. I had to give them my social security number and stuff. And then they’ll do all the verification stuff and they’ll send it back to you like, hey, you’re registered to vote now. I have to make sure it gets there by Election Day. So I’m gonna have to make sure I give it some extra time because I don’t know how fast the mail here is.

I’m a little worried because I have to have it either witnessed by someone who can also vote in Minnesota, or signed by a public notary. Conveniently, my sister lives in Lakeview so I’m just gonna pop over there and have her witness me vote.

DAN HU: Depending on the state you’re from, the early voting process can look very different. Maggie Grond is a freshman from Hull, Iowa, which is the first state to vote, and holds a caucus instead of a primary.

MAGGIE GROND: It’s really crazy because I feel like the area I’m from is so small and unnoticed until election time, and then you get all these big names coming to towns of 5000 people or less and hanging out with us, and it’s super cool. It’s really cool to get to be a part of that and to feel heard by political candidates. If Iowa wasn’t one of the first states I don’t think we would have gotten that opportunity because it is so small.

I was really excited about this campaign because I went home over winter break, and so my family, they met Cory Booker at a coffee shop in a town about 10 minutes away. Then, we met Amy Klobuchar. We had to leave at 6:30 one morning to drive to this local diner because I think she was trying to hit up 20 or 30 locations within two or three days. So we met her, and she came in and she gave a speech. She answered some questions and my mom got a picture with her, but she was really busy.

DAN HU: Although Teresa is from Minnesota, not Iowa, she educated herself on how the Iowa Caucus works.

TERESA NOWAKOWSKI: What happens is everyone heads over to their local caucus spot in Iowa. And then what they do is they all pick a candidate and go into different groups. If the candidate that they picked got less than 15% of the people in that room, they have to pick a different candidate. Basically, say only one person goes for Tom Steyer, then the Tom Steyer person has to go to a different place. Like, Joe Biden will get, obviously more than 15% in the room. So, maybe they go choose Joe Biden as their second choice. It can kind of keep going like that. So, the candidate has to get at least 15% of the vote in that specific caucus to be viable.

DAN HU: Well, how big is their room? You can’t have like 15% if you have five people.

TERESA NOWAKOWSKI: Well, it is interesting. They have these little satellite caucuses for Iowa all over. In Tbilisi, Georgia — the country — there is a caucus that is going to happen. There will be three Iowans there. So, whoever they pick is automatically viable in their caucus because they automatically get 33% of the vote. This is the first year that they’re not only going to say who won the caucus, but also the total number of votes that each person got, if that makes sense.

DAN HU: So, if Bernie Sanders is one of the three votes in this foreign country of Georgia, because there are three registered Iowans there, he automatically becomes viable.

TERESA NOWAKOWSKI: Minnesota does not do that. We have just the primary. You pick either the Republican or the Democrat ballot, and you fill it out. You can’t do both, but you don’t have to be a registered member of the party either. You just pick, which I think is nice. We don’t do ranked choice or anything, even though I wish we would.

I’m thankful though because it’s not like Iowa. We just vote in our primary; we don’t do the caucusing thing. Oh, that would be so much work.

MAGGIE GROND: So I was excited about caucusing, and I was going to caucus for Amy. They make it really difficult if you have to caucus out of state. There are satellite locations — there’s one at UChicago and one in Humboldt Park. But you have to sign up by a certain deadline. I had missed the deadline, so I’m unfortunately unable to caucus, which is kind of a bummer because it’s really important to get involved. I was really looking forward to it. I felt like this is one of the first elections I’d actually really got involved in because it’s the first time I’m a registered voter. It’s the first time I feel like I’ve really had a lot of a say.

DAN HU: For other college students, there may be even less awareness about the absentee voting process.

MAGGIE GROND: It really sucks. It makes it very, very difficult for people wanting to get involved in the election process because it’s so state-based, but a lot of students don’t live in the state that they are registered in. So, it does make it difficult, and I think that that’s kind of unfair and doesn’t allow for people’s voices to be represented well.

TERESA NOWAKOWSKI: I don’t know that it would occur to a lot of people to get their primary ballot absentee. I feel like primaries are kind of forgotten a lot of the time. I think for some people, it’s really good that we encourage them to just vote in Illinois, because I think it makes the process pretty easy for them. If you’re voting in your home state, it’s very much doing it yourself.
I do definitely know some people who are like, ‘Yeah, I’m voting in my home state because I think it’s going to make more of a difference there.’ Some people are more concerned about trying to flip things blue. For me, not super an issue. Minnesota has gone blue since ’72. There’s some local elections that I want to vote in, which is why I’m remaining a Minnesota voter.

DAN HU: At Northwestern, the Center for Civic Engagement oversees student voter registration and providing resources to get your vote counted. The center collected information on the voting process for all 50 states so students can navigate the complexities of the primary. We spoke with Rob Donahue, interim director of the center.

ROB DONAHUE: With a national student body, students have a legal right to register and vote either at the campus address or back home. But since the primaries — as opposed to a regular federal election, like a presidential or a midterm — happen over a cycle, it’s even more complicated, right? Democrats and Republicans have different primary dates in each state. Some states have different presidential primaries than they have for state elections. So they may have two sets of dates. Then invariably, people are protesting those rules, sometimes suing the states, and sometimes they’re winning and then those rules change. Some would argue that there’s some efforts that are designed to make the system fairer.Some would argue that there’s things going on that are actually designed to either incentivize or disincentivize certain groups from being able to participate more or less easily.

There’s a fascinating history around the Iowa caucuses in particular, which for a long time have been the first kind of early presidential race in the United States that they have typically require people to show up in person. But there’s a fair debate from some folks who say, if it’s difficult for me, if I’m disabled, it’s difficult for me to get out of the house, if I’m elderly. Is that fair? So part of what’s going on with the satellites is effort, I think, to continue to try to reach more folks. But of course, there’s always this kind of give and take. Well, how do you ensure that only Iowans participate, particularly if you’re having a satellite caucus out of Iowa, like in Chicago, there needs to be some mechanism to try to ensure that it’s people who literally have a legal right. So, you have to register ahead of time.

DAN HU: The University provides a website,, to inform students and faculty on how to vote in all 50 states. On the website there’s the entire primary schedule, and each state is categorized as a caucus, open primary, or closed primary.

ROB DONAHUE: There’s a clause in the Higher Ed Act that requires colleges and universities to make a good faith effort to help students with voter registration when they come to college. Now, what does it mean to make a good faith effort? Quite frankly, we’ve seen all different kinds of approaches to meeting that requirement. Putting a link on a web page, sending out an email, hanging up some posters. So we decided to do an experiment. What would happen if we really met the spirit of that requirement and not just the letter of it?
The idea for us was to integrate into a university process the opportunity for students to get any of the materials they would need to register and vote in any of the 50 states. Given that Northwestern is a national institution, you really need to be prepared to offer them all of the different options if you want to meet the full spirit of them being able to realize their interest in civic engagement. So it was a lot of work, more than we thought. But from the first year we worked with orientation to provide that option for every incoming student. We saw the voter registration rates for incoming students at Northwestern go from about 25 to 30 percent of incoming students typically being registered when they set foot on campus to moving up over 90 percent from the very first year. We routinely have 90 percent of our entire student body registered to vote. That made Northwestern a national leader in this arena.

DAN HU: Along with high voter registration, Northwestern also has high voter turnout. In the 2014 midterms, 23 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot, which was three percentage points above the national average for college students. By 2018 midterms, the national average rose to 40 percent, but Northwestern’s voter turnout reached 52 percent.

ROB DONAHUE: I’d like to say that our work here is part of a trend towards making this more of a cultural norm for college students across the country. Because we’ve been one of the first campuses to really embrace that responsibility. Our students have totally taken to it and I think inspired some other campuses to see that if these resources are provided, students will take advantage of them. The enterprise is designed, as it should be, to be entirely nonpartisan. We are here to make sure students understand what their rights are, what the laws are, what their responsibilities are, and then help them navigate the system as they see fit.

We’re always going to be changing and evolving to meet those needs. We’ve moved the needle in certain ways in terms of registration, that made us turn to focus a little more on turnout. We’re starting to move the needle on turnout. So now we’re starting to think more about discourse. How much people really are educated in the issues. But all those things need to work in sync, right? It’s something we do as an entire community. We have a great group of about 40 student ambassadors who are working with NU Votes in this campaign. Many of those folks have just volunteered to be part of a crew that’s going out between now and the fall, to help make sure that everyone on campus knows what the issues are and knows how to get themselves registered. And they’re out there to answer questions and support their peers. The political science department is supporting this. And they’re providing some experts to speak at various events on campus. We’ve heard from student groups who want to organize a march to the polls on election day.

So we view this as a cultural norm at Northwestern. That civic responsibility is part of the atmosphere at this place and a value that we all want to embrace and promote. I mean, that’s how democracies work, right? They thrive or wither based on the quality of the folks who are participating in them.

DAN HU: The center urges that Northwestern students visit to stay educated on what they need to do to make their vote count. The earlier it’s done, the less risk of accidentally missing a deadline.

ROB DONAHUE: I say, get yourself registered. And then I think when you feel like you have skin in the game. You can participate. That does go hand in hand with other ways that you can participate. And that includes talking about the issues, reading the newspaper, following news stories, whether that’s online or through television or on the radio. And then having discourse with your peers. A lot of times I think these broader national narrative seem distant, but as students think more and more about things that impact their lives. Things like, frankly, the cost of higher education and student debt, health issues, immigration issues, there’s all kinds of issues, certainly climate. That are issues that are impacting college students right now. T he research suggests it’s far easier to to remain engaged as long as you get started.

DAN HU: The Center for Civic Engagement teamed up with a Northwestern design class, interviewed students, and found that what held a lot of students back from participating in elections was intimidation from keeping up with all the news. Rob explained a prevalent rationale of students.

ROB DONAHUE: ‘Geez, everyone around me is smart and engaged and they seem to know more than I do about the systems that admittedly are complex.’ If you’re from, pick a place, Missouri, there’s issues going on there. But you’re living in Illinois and students are busy. And so keeping in touch with the issues you care about, and keeping in touch with local politics here, and keeping in touch with national politics, and keeping in touch with issues going on back home in Missouri, that can be overwhelming. And I can see where people just want to unplug from it because they feel intimidated or they think they’re gonna look silly because they don’t know what’s going on. So I think it’s most important again, to just get started, find what you care about. And you don’t have to be an expert in everything. You don’t need to know everything about what’s going on back home or everything that’s going on locally, but you need to find what speaks to you, whether that’s federal politics, local politics, or a pet issue, or some combination thereof. And I think that’s the best way to start.

DAN HU: That’s it for this week. Make sure to visit to check up on how and when to submit an absentee vote in your own state. Thank you to Rob for letting us get an inside look at the Center For Civic Engagement, and to Teresa and Maggie for sharing their experiences. This is NU Declassified. We’ll see you in our next episode every other Monday. This episode was reported and produced by me, Dan Hu, Ilana Arougheti and Neya Thanikachalam. It was edited by Kalen Luciano and Heena Srivastava. The Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Northwestern is Troy Closson.

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