This summer and fall CVP is writing profiles of colleges and universities and their efforts to educate students about voter registration, casting a ballot and developing democratic engagement. These campuses are a part of the Voter Friendly Campus designation project offered by CVP and NASPA.
The two representatives from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) who spoke to CVP were eager to share what they had done and what they were planning to do to engage students. UIC just started a coordinated democratic engagement initiative under “UIC Votes” that is tailor-made for its locally-based and diverse student body.
During fall orientation, UIC will give every new student a form that will allow students to register, have them confirm they are registered, or note that they are ineligible or would prefer not to register. Given that 85% of UIC commutes, this will be an effective way to register students en masse. (Last May, the Illinois state legislature approved an automatic voter registration bill, which, if Governor Bruce Rauner signs, would take effect in 2018.) Student Leadership Development and Volunteer Services (SLDVS) will conduct voter registration drives throughout the fall, and Rock the Vote will hold a concert on campus during National Voter Registration Day. While the representatives worried that the contentious race could turn off student voters, they were confident in-person appeals will convince students to register and participate.
SLDVS sends out mass emails regarding absentee voting, creates a nonpartisan voter guide, and hosts debate watch parties. In the March primary, UIC hosted an early voting site for the first time – an opportunity that will also be available to students before Election Day. UIC is also joining the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) and plans to use its 2016 election data to improve its voter engagement strategy for later elections.
Pivotal to UIC’s democratic engagement is strengthening the ties between students and the Chicago community. Every year, UIC’s political science department hosts the National Student Issues Convention, which focuses on issues affecting Chicago but also attracts students from across the country. Last year, four state and local leaders and over 200 students attended, with student groups registering 50 voters. Students advocated for a higher minimum wage, improved community/police relations, and a more equitable city budget.
The Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement at UIC also hosts learn sessions that connect students with activists and policy experts who are studying community problems. Past sessions discussed gentrification and understanding how maps affect our perception of neighborhoods and environments.
UIC recognizes the inherent difficulties that come with engaging a massive student body, most of which is non-residential; their burgeoning voter engagement effort connects students to their communities and casts a wide net.