Millennials? Apolitical? Not at Weber State

Tuesday , April 11, 2017 - 5:00 AM1 comment

CAROL MCNAMARA and LEAH MURRAY, special to the Standard-Examiner

Weber State University recently earned a national distinction that debunks the notion that millennials are apolitical. The university was one of 83 across the nation honored as a “Voter Friendly Campus.”

Weber State is dedicated to educating students to become informed voters and active citizens. If students do not learn about their responsibilities as citizens to become voters, to educate themselves about the issues, and to be willing to engage in the civil and informed exchange of ideas during their university education, when will they learn?

In 2016, the Campus Vote Project and NASPA (Student Affairs Professionals in Higher Education) launched a program to help institutions of higher education facilitate electoral engagement. Weber State created a coalition that included the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service, Student Involvement and Leadership, and the Center for Community Engaged Learning, as well as community partners such as the Weber County Clerk’s Elections Office, the Utah State Debate Commission and iCitizen, an app that connects citizens to politicians and organizations.

Weber State developed a year-long plan to register students to vote, provided events that enhanced and informed their voting and civic education, and helped students mobilize voters on campus and in the community. To encourage voter registration, we held a registration simulation in the residence halls. Students learned how important it is to understand the voting laws of individual states. We hosted a Rock the Vote concert in September in conjunction with the Ogden City Twilight Series. More than 700 people attended, and all were encouraged to register and to vote by an army of WSU students. On National Voter Registration Day, we set up locations around campus and asked passersby to #PledgetoVote. Students took selfies and posted them on social media as they made their pledge. We know this effort had a viral impact that cannot be fully measured. All of our effort was completed in conjunction with the county clerk’s elections office.

Perhaps more important than voter registration is voter education because the point of a university is to educate citizens. Toward that end, we hosted a series of speakers and debates on campus. National litigator Laughlin McDonald came to campus on Constitution Day to discuss potential problems with Utah’s Vote By Mail. In October, WSU partnered with the Utah Debate Commission to present a statewide televised debate between Utah’s 1st Congressional District candidates, at which students had the opportunity to ask questions. We also hosted two presidential debate watches with students engaged in a national tweetup, connecting their ideas via Twitter.

We were relentless — at every event, we encouraged students to register and to vote. Considering that Weber County had its best voter turnout ever in 2016, we believe our efforts paid off. Our purpose was not to tell our students how to vote, only to provide access to voter participation information about the U.S. electoral system. Our community was energized around the 2016 election, and our students learned why their participation as active citizens is indispensable to the continuation of a properly functioning democracy.

Our efforts to educate around electoral issues did not end on Election Day. After the election, the Walker Institute, supported by university partners, invited Harvard professor and author Danielle Allen to discuss the importance of the Declaration of Independence, about which she has written widely. In December, two WSU political science professors, Thom Kuehls and Leah Murray, debated the merits of the Electoral College. In January, the Weber Historical Society invited Murray to discuss why Donald Trump won the presidential election. And WSU hosted an Inauguration Watch, so students could watch the new president begin his term. Students wrote a blog post for the American Democracy Project about the inauguration.

Weber State University understands that, as a public university, we have a responsibility to educate students to become and stay active, informed, civil participants in the political and electoral process. In this way, we also prepare them to emerge as leaders for Utah’s future.

Dr. Carol McNamara is the director of the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service at Weber State University and a member of the political science faculty. Twitter: @carolmcnamara10.

Dr. Leah Murray is a professor of political science at Weber State. Twitter: @leahmurray74.

Hamilton and Washington

Weber State University will sponsor a lunch conversation featuring author Stephen F. Knott, who will discuss the leadership of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington at noon Thursday, April 13, in the Hurst Center Dumke Legacy Hall. It’s free for those who register. For more information, visit weber.edu/walkerinstitute/calendar.html.

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