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ASG voting booth

Nate Mickelberg/MEDILL

Northwestern University students  encouraged classmates to vote in Tuesday's Evanston City Council elections.

Poor response to Northwestern voter drive mirrors youth response nationwide

by Nate Mickelberg
Apr 10, 2013

A Northwestern University “get out the vote” initiative aimed at combating student voter apathy, was met with a less than enthusiastic response from students as Evanston City Council elections were held Tuesday.

While turnout for the elections was low across the city, it was particularly lacking at the two on-campus polling places. Parkes Hall, one of the polling places for the hotly contested 1st Ward seat, drew 81 voters throughout the day, not all of which are students. Patten Gymnasium, which housed one of the 7th Ward polling places, drew six.

“I think for the most part people don’t know [about the elections],” said Northwestern freshman Connor Regan. “There’s so much going on at Northwestern. It’s very easy for students to become apathetic.”

The inability of the Vote Evanston initiative to engage and mobilize more students is not surprising to Peter Shane, an expert on civic engagement.

“Participation is lower for everybody in local races,” Shane said. “Typically it’s because people don’t think the stakes are that high, they don’t know as much about the candidates, there hasn’t been the same degree of mobilization of voters.

“I think for students at colleges it’s probably magnified by the fact that many of the voters at colleges are probably not going to school in their home community.”

Shane, a professor at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, added that attitudes about the effectiveness of voting also likely play a role in low student turnout at the polls.

“I think younger people may have a greater skepticism about the potential impact of their vote,” he said.

Possibly compounding the frustration for Vote Evanston organizers is that these are exactly the issues they were hoping to address with the initiative.

“It was started as a way to encourage students to get involved in Evanston politics, learn about the local issues and specifically get involved in this election,” said Kevin Harris, a member of Northwestern’s Associated Student Government, the group that started the initiative.

Despite providing voter registration tables in dorm lobbies since February, hosting multiple candidate forums on campus and leading walks to the city civic center, ASG was still able to register only about 40 students before Tuesday’s elections, according to Harris.

Organizers did not see a whole lot more interest on Election Day, registering only a handful more students at the booth they set up on campus, Harris estimated.

Despite the odds against ASG’s initiative, Regan still sees value in the effort.

“I do think that’s a good initiative, just an easy reminder that one very quick vote can have an effect on my next four years here.”