On February 14, 2018, grief overshadowed a day annually set aside to celebrate love when Nikolas Cruz shot and killed 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Illinois State junior Dylan Toth watched in horror as images from the carnage began flashing on television screens nationwide. A senior in high school at the time, he couldn’t help but see himself in each of the faces of the innocent teens who thought they were attending a normal day of class on Valentine’s Day.
Hundreds of students have been killed in school shootings across the United States since the Columbine High School massacre in 1998. After seeing yet another unfold on that fateful February afternoon, Toth promised himself he’d participate in every election and vote for representatives who promised change.
“It’s not so much about laying the future for yourself, but also laying it for the future behind,” said Toth, a family consumer science major.
Civic engagement is a core value at Illinois State. The University has made a concerted effort to ensure Toth and his peers are more represented at polls, in policymaking, and in community building.
Illinois State has had a long history of answering the call to engage students in democratic participation. Since the 2016 presidential election, however, the University has focused campuswide efforts on amplifying more student voices with a specific infrastructure in place to establish short-term, long-term, and year-round civic engagement.
“There’s research out there about how you build voting as a habit, and you have to start younger,” said Harriett Steinbach, assistant director of the Center for Civic Engagement (CCE). “It’s crucial to engage with and support the future of our democracy.”
In November 2019, Illinois State’s Voter Engagement Coalition developed the All-In Voter Engagement Plan to create a coordinated campus effort for the 2020 elections. The University sought to build momentum after monumental student turnout in the 2018 election compared with previous midterms.
Despite barriers presented by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the University preregistered 1,102 students during the fall for the 2020 election and helped contribute to the significant uptick in younger voters. These statistics don’t take into account students who were already registered or the ones who registered on election day. The McLean County Clerk’s Office showed that 1,988 of 2,698 (74 percent) of those registered in Illinois State’s three precincts—which are mostly populated by students—voted. That was about seven points higher than the projected national average, according to The Washington Post.
Nationally, the 18-29 age demographic had an 8 percent turnout surge compared with 2016, according to a study from Tufts University in Boston.
While the Voter Engagement Coalition used many research-based approaches to encourage students to participate in the 2020 election, it was clear that they were most likely to listen to their peers.
Months before the November’s election, CCE selected Josh Crockett, a senior political science major, and Nakiya Simpson, junior elementary education major, as election fellows. They were responsible for connecting with students to provide helpful information and raise enthusiasm for participation. They flooded group chats, presented in Zoom classes, made sure students were pointed toward the right resources, and recruited plenty of other civically engaged students to help spread the word.
“I think students are more aware of how things happening in the world are really impacting their life and their campus,” said Crockett. He led the Student Government Association voter registration turnouts and gathered Census data. “So, I think we’re really trying to tap into that and to get students fired up about those issues that they’re passionate about.”
Simpson knows the policies shaped now will affect the young people she will be teaching someday. She felt like it was her job to encourage people to vote—no matter whom they supported—to have their views represented. She also believed an early investment in the process will lead to more involvement later in life.
“As a future teacher, my goal is always to leave my students knowing that they have a voice,” Simpson said. “Because when a person has a voice, it motivates them 10 times harder to do what they want to do and what they should do.”
Students went to the polls for many reasons.
Illinois State’s student body president, Lauren Harris, knows the historical significance of voter suppression in the Black community and just how much work of others it took for people who looked like her to vote.
“I know that many people before me—Black Americans specifically—fought for me to have this right to vote, so it would be a disservice to not be using this right,” said Harris, a senior political science major.
As it turned out, cities in swing states with a high Black population—Atlanta, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia—had a significant effect on the outcome of the presidential race won by Democratic candidate Joe Biden over incumbent Donald Trump.
While some students’ current views were shaped by their previous experiences, others might have needed a little more guidance in finding nonpartisan resources so they could easily identify and side with issues that were meaningful to them.
The Redbird Voter Guide, which was launched before the 2020 election season on CCE’s website, included an educational tool kit. Voters could read about candidates of every race from presidential to county board. It offered a nonpartisan political ideology quiz.
The Redbird Voter Guide broke down the routes to voter registration, mail-in voting, early voting, in-person voting, and how to sift through information. That information helped provide people with all of the different voting options, which were especially important during a pandemic. In the three McLean County precincts containing most of the Illinois State student population, 823 voted early, while 252 voted by mail. In the 2018 midterms, only 520 students voted early or by mail combined.
“We are really proud of our website as a comprehensive resource for students,” Steinbach said.
Between student outreach and the website, student voters were encouraged to be well informed, talk to the right people, and find credible news sources—whether they’d be online, TV, print, or social media.
“The danger is that there’s misinformation that’s put out there with social media, so we wanted to use our student leaders to put out the right information,” said Dr. Jacqueline Lanier, associate professor in the Department of Health Sciences and co-faculty leader of the American Democracy Project.
Faculty members were also encouraged to engage with students in dialogue and discussion in the classroom. In fact, Dr. Nathan Carpenter, director of convergent media in the School of Communication, taught an eight-week Honors Seminar on the elections.
The hope is that Illinois State students engage in civic life long past the 2020 presidential election.
“Our democratic process works when everybody is engaged. It’s founded on that,” Lanier said. “We’re so focused on the presidential election, but we also want to show how important our local elections are. It’s about referendums, other processes, and important issues that represent their views, their values, and the things that are important to them.”
The University wants students to know their voice counts in both their hometowns and the Bloomington-Normal area. While they encourage students to vote where they want to make the most difference, they can also involve themselves in their collegiate homes.
“I had a professor once say that civic engagement is really doing anything beyond your 9-5 job,” Crockett said. “It doesn’t just mean voting or following local news but volunteering, giving back, shopping local, using the Constitution Trail, or just saying hi to someone. It’s about you building community however you can.”
Illinois State students are doing just that, and it was on full display during the fall election season. Senior Tiffani Jackson moderated Bloomington Normal NAACP Political Candidate Forum event via Zoom in early October. Recent alum Hannah Beer ’20 won a seat for McLean County Board—running a primary campaign while she was a student. Sophomores Sarah Kraft and Yuridia Pineda served as election judges.
Everyone has their own way of making the world a better place, and Illinois State University is proud to encourage that commitment, drive, and vision.
In 2020, the Center for Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) incorporated the American Democracy Project (ADP) as an initiative coordinated by the center and collaborated closely with the Student Government Association (SGA) to order to develop a hyper-focused, campuswide approach to increase civic participation and interest. The center’s broad scope involves supporting all forms of nonpartisan engagement through in-class and out-of-class learning experiences, along with building community partnerships.
ADP, founded on campus in 2003, advanced civic engagement as a core value at the University even after the center formed in 2017. SGA, specifically the civic engagement committee, has been the key student voice to encourage student electoral involvement, including partnering with ADP to purchase TurboVote, a nonpartisan online service helping students register to vote.
“We felt like we needed to take it to the next level,” ADP faculty co-leader Dr. Jacqueline Lanier said about merging with CCE. “We’re excited about where it’s going and how it’s going to continue to evolve going forward.”
Illinois State has shown steady progress in voter turnout in the last couple of national, state, and local elections. There was a 17.1 percent increase from students in 2018 compared with 2014. The 2016 presidential election also had a 15.6 percent voter increase from the 2012 election. The short-term goal for 2020 was to increase voter registration and turnout by 10 percent from 2016. Numbers from the 2020 fall election will be available this spring.
A lot goes into building a sustainable approach to get the campus community invested in elections. Illinois State sought feedback from Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University in Boston, which collected data at Illinois State from 2017-2019.
“We’re tapped into every national network,” CCE Assistant Director Harriett Steinbach said. “What I’ve learned is that planning matters. And that’s why I think Illinois State is in a good place is because we have taken a lot of time to plan.”
The coalition came up with a four-pillar approach to reach both short- and long-term goals:
- Students and faculty/staff as advocates
- Voter registration
- Voter education
- Voter turnout
The Voter Engagement Coalition set forth high yet realistic goals to register as many students as possible. Redbird voters are at a bit more of a luxury since Illinois is a same-day registration date, but students were encouraged to register online before the election to avoid any complications when casting the ballot. Illinois State was also involved in a voter registration competition between Illinois Wesleyan University and Heartland Community College.
While the 2020 election took up much of the initial focus, the All-In Voter Engagement Plan was created to set up a foundation for future civic participation at Illinois State. The coalition created another four-point plan for long-term goals following the November rush:
- Increase student registration, education, and participation in the spring 2021 municipal elections and subsequent municipal elections.
- Develop resources for faculty to incorporate political engagement into curriculum during any semester.
- Advocate for learning outcomes associated with democratic engagement for core courses in the general education curriculum as the general education update is occurring.
- Establish a long-term structure for the voter engagement coalition, term of service, and succession plan.
All of this attention to detail helped the University earn a spot in Washington Monthly’s best colleges for student voting list in October.