Campus Initiative Aims to Increase Voter Turnout Among College Students

  • May 28, 2021

By Xenia Gonikberg – JRN 217

Since its inception in 1966, the Andrew Goodman Foundation has worked with universities across the United States to improve voter registration rates among college students. The Stony Brook University chapter, the Center for Civic Justice, aims to make barriers to voting nonexistent for students at the university.

Robert and Carolyn Goodman started the Andrew Goodman Foundation in honor of their son, who was killed in 1964 by the Klu Klux Klan for fighting against voter suppression and discrimination in Mississippi. 

The Andrew Goodman Foundation first began working with Stony Brook University in 2015 and through its Vote Everywhere program, Stony Brook has become one of the most civically engaged areas in Long Island. Among its chief accomplishments, the Center for Civic Justice has successfully registered over 25,000 students to vote and instituted optional voter registration drives at orientation events, making it easier for first-time voters to participate in elections. 

“Most students end up registering to vote as part of new student orientation,”  Steven Adelson, the faculty coordinator, said. “It’s resulted in an increase in student voter registration and turnout rates. We were still able to register a large percentage of students to vote this year because we adapted our practices to virtual options.” 

Through its collaboration with the Andrew Goodman foundation, Stony Brook University won the Voter Friendly Campus Award out of the 120 other campuses that were eligible.

“Stony Brook University is a national leader in voter engagement,” Adelson said. “We have worked with other universities to develop and implement similar practices to support their student voting needs.” 

“We started off with just doing things like tabling”– setting up areas around campus with information relating to a particular issue “and always being in the Student Activity Center or other places, or we would walk around with clipboards in my first year and go up to people and ask if they were registered to vote,” Elif Onay said. Onay is a senior political science major and undergraduate coordinator for the center. Onay has been with the Center for Civic Justice since her freshman year. She, along with several other interns, helped propose the idea for the center in 2018. 

One way that the Center for Civic Justice increased turnout was through its participation in freshman orientation. The center has succeeded in its efforts to help students register to vote as a result of this initiative. During the 2019 academic year, the center hosted 31 voter registration events as part of new student orientation and 3,070 students completed an application. 

“So once you get the new incoming students to register to vote, when the time comes for elections, you don’t have to worry about the paperwork because we already sort of set the foundation for you to do this later on,” Tenzin Tsetan said. Tsetan is a sophomore biology major who has interned with the center for four semesters. 

In addition, the center keeps detailed records of students’ voter statuses to ensure that every student is able to vote in upcoming elections. From January to February 2020, 691 students updated their voter information, and in April 2020 the center helped 742 students request absentee ballots for the New York State primary election that June. 

 “In New York state, your voter status can become inactive if you change your address, but this also includes moving campus addresses. So because of that, we have a lot of students who get marked inactive because they switched dorms,” Husbaan Sheikh said. Sheikh is a junior political science and sociology major and an intern with the center.

Another way that the center has made voting easier for students is by providing early-voting buses to the polling place at Brookhaven Town Hall. 

“It took at least like an hour or two just to get to the polling site to vote early with public transportation,” Sheikh said. “So for [the 2020] general election, we wanted to make early voting as accessible as possible.”

Ultimately, the Center for Civic Justice’s goal is to have 100% voter turnout from every eligible voter on campus. Onay said that the center “has 50 to 60% turnout” among the student body during elections, excluding the 2020 presidential election, where Onay mentioned that there was a definite increase in turnout. The center does not yet have the final numbers for the 2020 election.

“The most important thing that we can do is empower each other. The fact that it takes so much work to get people to vote exemplifies what’s wrong with the system at the moment,” Sheikh said.