With the 2020 Presidential Election fast approaching, and with early voting having been taking place for many weeks, Union College has been working to increase the voter turnout of the college community. One of the ways that the college has been doing this is through the nonpartisan Civic Engagement Initiative, a joint effort between Academic Affairs and Student Affairs. The main goals of this campaign are to promote civic engagement, as well as to increase student voter participation in the 2020 election.
The co-Chairs of this initiative are Lauren Dougherty, the Director of Student Activities, as well as Robyn Reed, the Head of Access Services Librarian. Discussing why the CEI was formed, they explained that the college had taken part in the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement during the 2014 and 2018 election periods, they found that “while approximately 75% of Union students register to vote,” there is a big disparity between this and the number that actually vote, with Dougherty and Reed evidencing that “only a mere 25% and 35%, respectively, actually voted.”
The membership of the committee is made up of eleven members of the Union community, with students, faculty and staff. According to Dougherty and Reed, they were chosen by the Vice Presidents of Academic and Student Affairs, who also chose other members from the Political Science department, Minerva Programs, Office of Intercultural Affairs, as well as student representatives.
The first event held through the initiative was the impeachment discussion in January 2020, however the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and subsequent move to remote learning for the Spring 2020 term, did limit the scope of activities that the initiative could carry out. Dougherty and Reed commented that many of the events planned such as “tabling for voter registration and bringing a voting booth to campus,” needed to be replaced “creatively and innovatively.” With many students returning to a COVID-adapted campus in the fall, the CEI held an outdoor sign making event on September 22, in order to “recognize National Voter Registration Day.” During this event, students were provided with the prompt of “I vote because…”, and were encouraged to write their responses on lawn signs that were subsequently displayed on the lawn in front of Schaffer Library and the Nott Memorial.
Virtual events have also been utilized by the Initiative, with three debate-watching parties being held. Dougherty and Reed explained that Professors Bradley Hays, Deidre Hill Butler and Guillermina Seri, along with other faculty members, provided live commentary during the viewings. They were “well attended”, with students asking “good questions” about the candidates and their platforms.
Regarding the importance of college students voting during Presidential Elections, Dougherty and Reed proclaimed that it is “every citizen’s right and duty to vote,” elaborating that there have been people who have “sacrificed their safety and even died,” in order that this right exists. The role of student’s Union experiences were also mentioned, with it being explained that at Union students get an education that will “prepare them for life,” and learn how to “become informed citizens.” Discussing Union’s strategic plan, The Power of Union, Dougherty and Reed pinpoint the focus on “experiential learning,” that enables students to understand their impact outside of the classroom. In the context of voting, the co-Chairs explain that this means understanding how a student’s individual vote is an important part of the democratic process, in order to “elect representatives who will best support their interests.”
A student member of the Initiative, Hannah Hoyt ’22, who is also the co-President of the Union College Activist Network, discussed how college students have consistently voted at a “lower rate than the older population,” meaning that the group has been unable to “influence the outcome of elections.” She reasons why the CEI is important, describing how “college students are the future of the country,” and therefore why they should be voting in much larger numbers. Starting to vote early is also seen as important for Hoyt, as she explains her belief that if college students do not vote, it is “unlikely they will vote ever.”
Some of the other groups that have worked with the Civic Engagement Initiative include the aforementioned UCAN, as well as the Political Science department and Pi Sigma Alpha, the political science honor society.
The Civic Engagement Initiative will be holding a Union Votes event on election day, November 3, from 1:00PM to 3:00PM outside of Reamer. They will be using this opportunity to “celebrate election day,” as well as to celebrate the community “upholding our civic duty,” according to Dougherty and Reed. Moreover, the co-Chairs explained that funding is available at the mailroom for students who “need postage to mail in their ballots.”