Colleges and Universities Should Encourage Student Voting

Now is the best time to think in new ways about how to fulfill our responsibility to educate students for lifetimes of engagement, argue Lawrence S. Bacow and Rebecca M. Blank.

September 21, 2020
 
Bryce Richter/UW-Madison
 

Long before we were university leaders, we were teachers. Our courses changed from year to year as our students and the world changed, but one thing remained consistent: we assigned homework.

If you are leading a college or university right now -- or if you are making the academic year possible as a member of the faculty or staff at any one of our nation’s institutions of higher education -- asking something more of your students in the midst of a global pandemic may seem impractical. But one assignment cannot wait. We urge you to encourage your students to register to vote, to become informed of the issues and the candidates, and to cast a ballot. Every election, whether it determines the occupant of the nation’s highest office or provides funding for local schools, is an opportunity for individuals to affirm and uphold the democratic process. Voting is not only a right -- it is the first responsibility of citizenship.

We know our suggestion is easier said than done. At a moment when COVID-19 has upended everything we do and dispersed our students around the country and across the world, simply convening a class can require a team of specialists. The kinds of person-to-person interactions that make campuses come to life in a typical year have been reduced, as have informal opportunities to communicate in ways that create and sustain a sense of community. This is certainly not a convenient time to think in new ways about how we can fulfill our responsibility to educate students for lifetimes of engagement. But it is the best time.

At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, we have launched a cross-campus initiative of faculty members, administrators and students that we call the Badgers Vote Coalition to coordinate messaging across multiple channels. While COVID-19 has forced the cancellation of in-person events, we are finding new ways to share information and engage our students. We’ve added an interactive tool to our website, vote.wisc.edu, to help students who are learning remotely figure out where to vote, and we’re setting up tents outdoors to make early voting as safe as possible. We are also hiring our first voting engagement and civic learning coordinator to (among other things) support our efforts to close the racial gap in voting. The goal of this constellation of initiatives is to expand voter education programs beyond the walls of individual campus units to create a system that is universitywide.

At Harvard University, we are helping to ensure that our undergraduate, graduate and professional students are voter-ready by promoting registration, engagement and turnout through the Harvard Votes Challenge. Our goal is to reach 100 percent participation among eligible members of the university community. We’re deploying resources across our schools to generate grassroots support for our effort -- from points of contact with members of a universitywide steering team to tool kits and trainings for students, faculty and staff that have taken our “Pledge to 100%.” In conjunction, we empower all members of the university community, whether they are eligible to vote or not, to elevate and celebrate voting among their friends and families, because the outcomes of elections at every level affect all of us.

Our nation faces historic crises -- a public health crisis, an economic recession and urgent calls for racial justice and social reform. These will only be solved with active and informed citizen engagement. As university leaders, we must commit to building programs that promote and support civic education and student voting. According to the spring 2020 Harvard Youth Poll, more than three in five 18- to 29-year-olds agree that the outcome of the 2020 presidential election will have a significant impact on their lives -- whether they identify as Democrats (68 percent), Republicans (70 percent) or Independents (47 percent). A panoply of issues worries them, including “stress related to debt, the cost of housing, access to health care, mental health resources, and concern about whether or not loved ones will survive coronavirus.” Yet just over half of the respondents indicated that they will “definitely” vote in November -- a slight increase from spring 2016.

Empowerment takes more than inspiring words. It takes education about the process, including the development of skills to navigate what can be a confusing and intimidating system. If you have not already, we hope you will join Harvard, UW Madison and more than 730 other colleges and universities around the country as members of the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, a nonpartisan, national initiative that recognizes and supports campuses as they work to increase nonpartisan democratic engagement. And if you need a due date for your homework assignment, National Voter Education Week, running Oct. 5-9, is right around the corner.

Bio

Lawrence S. Bacow is president of Harvard University, and Rebecca M. Blank is chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

We are retiring comments and introducing Letters to the Editor. Letters may be sent to [email protected].

Read the Letters to the Editor  »

 

Topics

Back to Top