Program Aims To Prepare College Students To Engage In Democracy

Nov 19, 2018

More than 71 percent of Montana voters voted in the midterm election, the highest turnout in state history. It was also higher across the country. National exit polls show that included more young voters — or 18 to 29 year olds. But younger voters still have the lowest turnout rates of any age group.

That’s where Andrew Seligsohn comes in. He’s the president of Campus Compact, a nonprofit group that partners with with colleges and universities across the country to get students to the polls and keep them engaged after elections.

Seligsohn was in Missoula Thursday to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the local affiliate, Montana Campus Compact. MTPR's Rosie Costain talked to him about keeping students engaged now that the election is over and about a new initiative aimed getting students involved in the democratic process.

Rosie Costain: So you're here promoting the Education for Democracy initiative. What is that about?

Andrew Seligsohn: Part of the idea behind Education for Democracy is we want to help students understand how to engage in a whole range of practices. So voting is one part of democracy, but so is having a thoughful and informed discussion with neighbors about a public issue. And so understanding how can you deliberate thoughfully, you know, when you may not already agree with the people you're talking to. So we're looking to kind of mobilize a range of actions locally and nationlly that promote that whole broad range of engagement and particitpation.

RC: So what are some of the current things you're doing to get students engaged?

AS: You can definitely gain a lot by doing things right in the run-up to an election, to get students involved: voter registration efforts right before those deadlines, or turnout efforts. But the biggest impact is by creating campuses where public issues are being discussed all the time. Then when elections roll around students already know why the want to vote, they're already motivated to vote.

RC: Do you think some of that work played into that election that happened a week and a half ago?

AS: I do. So, I think many people know that overall turnout was off the charts, right, it was record turnout for a mid-term election, which is great for the country. But that increase was even greater among young people.

RC: So, with that record turnout, what can you do to keep that level of engagement going?

AS: It can't be about ramping-up every time. It has to be about buildilng long-term change that supports youth and student voter engagement all the time. So, for example, Northwestern University is a great example of this. One step now in the registration process when you show up as a new student for your first year is the voter registration station. You know, along with your financial aid and your course registration. And it becomes an aspect of student life that's just a natural as registering for a class and showing up, or working on financial aid processing, or whatever. You know it should just be an expectation that if hey, you're a student here at the University of Montana or at Montana State University or at Flathead Valley Community College; just a part of what it means to be a student in one of those places is that you take seriously your responsibility to participate in democracy.

RC: Do you think this higher level of turnout shows a long-term change, or does it seem like it just might fizzle out — that engagement might just fizzle out in the next election or so?

AS: We know that voting is habit-forming, so the more people vote, the more likely they are to vote in the future, and so I think at least we've got a shot at turning this into a long-term change, moving in a direction where the encounter with the opportunities, the challenges, the realities of democracy — the idea that that becomes a norm of everbody's college education — just the way, at this point, for example, building writing skills, building skills in critical thinking, building skills in quantitative reasoning. Almost every college and university intends to make that a feature of every student's education. They've got whole systems to ensure that's happening. We have not done that with the skills necessary for democracy, and I think that would be the next step to really ensuring that we take advantage of this moment and turn it into something that's a persistent feature of our democracy.

RC: That was the President of Campus Compact Andrew Seligsohn talking about keeping college students engaged after the election.