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Campus Efforts Guide Students to Voting Booth

Montclair State integrates civic engagement into its mission, curriculum and campus life

Posted in: University

Britah Odondi, a graduate student working for the Office of Civic and Voter Engagement, helps sophomore Killian Ramsthaler register to vote.
Britah Odondi, a graduate student working for the Office of Civic and Voter Engagement, helps sophomore Killian Ramsthaler register to vote.

With the November elections approaching, Montclair State’s efforts to get more students to vote got a boost the day former Vice President Joe Biden stopped by campus, shaking hands and smiling for selfies. It was a made-for-Instagram moment that inspired political engagement among younger voters.

That high-profile event has supported efforts by Britah Odondi, a graduate student, as she travels around campus promoting voter registration. Odondi is completing her combined BA in Jurisprudence/MA in Law and Governance program and works for the University’s Office of Civic and Voter Engagement. Since the political rally in early September, Odondi says she has seen an increase in both the number of students registering and those pledging to vote.

Among those motivated is Naajidah Khan, a junior political science major who played a role at the campaign event. “When you have an elected official standing in front of you, shaking your hand and telling you, ‘You need to vote,’ it’s inspiring and brings everything into context about why things matter and why you need to be engaged,” she says.

Khan is volunteering for Mikie Sherrill, the Democrat taking on Republican Jay Webber in New Jersey’s 11th congressional district, which includes Montclair. At the rally, Khan shared her personal journey to engagement.

“I decided to educate myself on how we got here and how I could be proactive and make a difference,” Khan told the crowd. “I began to understand the importance of off-year elections, civic engagement, that every vote really does count, and how our current political climate has been allowed to take shape in large part because of our own complacency.”

The office of Civic and Voter Engagement has made its presence known on campus, promoting registration and rewarding students who join the voter rolls with T-shirts that feature the slogan, “Grumble. Complain. Blame. Tweet. Protest. Vote.” Montclair State is also competing in the Ballot Bowl, a non-partisan, statewide collegiate voter registration competition connected to the September 25 national registration drive. The University has been able to target registration strategies with data showing for the first time, which kinds of students are voting and which are not, according to Mariel Pagán, director of the Center for Student Involvement.

In the 2016 Presidential election, for instance, nearly 56 percent of all Montclair State undergraduate students voted, a number provided by the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement. The data also provides a picture of how active students are – for example, nearly 91 percent of all student voters chose to visit the voting booth in person on Election Day.

The University’s efforts to provide registration and election materials recently earned it a spot on the listing of America’s Best Colleges for Student Voting Information published by Washington Monthly.

“The University feels strongly that part of our core responsibility to the State of New Jersey and to society as a whole, is to help students develop and execute their rights and responsibilities as citizens,” says Karen Pennington, vice president for Student Development and Campus Life. “Voting is the most fundamental of those rights, and the responsibility of all who are eligible to be a part of creating and sustaining the type of world in which they want to live.”

Inside the Student Recreation Center, Killian Ramsthaler, a sophomore accounting major, was among the students who registered to vote for the first time. “My grandmother has been hassling me about it and I’ve been meaning to do it,” he says. “I didn’t know it would be so easy.”

With low midterm voting rates, especially among voters ages 18-30, political scientists expect to see an uptick this November as congressional and Senate races in play have national implications.

“I think you’ll see higher levels of participation of young people because they are more aware of what is at stake,” says Brigid Harrison, professor of Political Science and Law at Montclair State.

More students like Khan are also stepping up for causes they believe in, including student debt, immigration policy and gun laws. “When it’s part of social media, when it’s part of the campus, when it’s part of the daily discussions you have, or what you see on the news, you’re aware of it,” Khan says.

A number of students are volunteering for candidates across the state. A Montclair State course, Campaign Politics, combines seminar and practicum experiences in some of the state’s most competitive races. “It’s a model that broadly engages students in the political lives of their communities and gives them a very marketable skill set,” says Harrison, who teaches the class.

On election night, Montclair State students will be covering New Jersey election returns. As correspondents teaming with the Center for Cooperative Media and NJ Spotlight, the voting results will be broadcast live and streamed from the University’s multi-platform newsroom, says Mark Effron, clinical specialist in the School of Communication and Media.

“There’s common misconception that students aren’t political,” Harrison says. But as products of the social media age, “much of my research has demonstrated that they are political but how they present is vastly different than previous generations.”