If the 2016 election demonstrated anything, it was this: University of Northern Iowa students vote. They vote more than almost any other college in the nation.
In fact, only one other college in the country bested UNI’s 67.5 percent student voting rate, and, for that, the college received a Silver Seal award from the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge.
But despite the impressive turnout, seniors Matt Johnson (public administration, political science) and Brenna Wolfe (public administration, sociology) saw something missing in 2016.
“We saw these numbers happen naturally,” Johnson said. “There was effort from different student organizations, but there was no cohesive collaboration.”
This year, that all changed. Wolfe and Johnson helped UNI lead a new, unified effort, #PanthersVote, with the Northern Iowa Student Government (NISG) and university chapters of the American Democracy Project and Campus Election Engagement Project.
“In previous years, student organizations have undergone individual initiatives to encourage students to register to vote. While the hard work of the organizations produced successful results, these independent efforts were not as effective as they could have been,” said David Konfrst, director of public relations for the student government. “Campus leaders are now creating a cohesive movement to increase voter engagement.”
The group had a multi-prong strategy, including coordinating a variety of organizations under the #PanthersVote brand and using this common brand to get students registered to vote. The effort was driven by voter drives, community presentations, social media campaigns and classroom visits. For its efforts, the program was selected as the Emerging Innovation Award winner for the Iowa Campus Compact’s annual Engaged Campus Awards. And the subsequent elections further solidified the initiative’s success.
For the 2018 midterm elections, preliminary estimates show that turnout at the two precincts serving the campus more than doubled the turnout in 2014. And for the special election in March for Iowa Senate District 3, 863 people voted in two days, which is a remarkable total for a special election, said Scott Peters, head of the department of political science.
The numbers showcase a definitive trait in the student body. “UNI students care. Our record shows that UNI students care about voting,” Wolfe said. That sentiment was echoed by Samantha Bayne, the Iowa director of the Campus Election Engagement Project, which worked with Johnson over the summer to brainstorm #PanthersVote.
“UNI has the highest voter turnout that I have seen in the state,” Bayne said. “These numbers are incredibly rare and extremely impressive – they showcase a true culture of active citizenship at UNI.”
It’s important to remember that #PanthersVote is a strictly non-partisan effort. The only thing that matters for the leaders of this effort is that students register to vote and use that vote in an election.
“#PanthersVote isn’t interested in who wins or loses, it’s about getting students involved and engaged,” Peters said. “It becomes not a partisan experience, but an exercise in civic responsibility.”
For more information about UNI's Department of Political Science, visit csbs.uni.edu/polisci.