It was an August morning at Howard University, and the freshmen were coming. This particular Saturday was move-in day, a time when new students settle into their new home. And so they descended, arriving with bright futures, eager parents and piles (and piles and piles and piles) of dorm-room essentials.
An endless line of cars pulled up to the curb. Families spilled out onto the grounds. Mr. and Miss Howard University showed up. So did Howard’s cheerleaders.
Amid all the joyful chaos was a table stacked with fliers. Here, a student could pick up a list of important campus telephone numbers. Or, if they grabbed a small blue handout, students could learn how to get information about elections and absentee ballots, and about a website that would help with all of that.
Welcome to Howard. Don’t forget to vote.
“We have a civic duty,” Howard’s president, Wayne A.I. Frederick, said. “Our motto is truth and service, and that service part of it also means that we have to exercise our civic duty to vote.”
As the midterm elections approach and an academic year begins, Howard’s student government is working to emphasize the importance of casting a ballot — and not necessarily in the District. The initiatives are helping students figure out how to cast absentee ballots in elections back home, sometimes in states where a vote can directly affect the balance of power in Congress.
Amos Jackson III, president of the Howard University Student Association, called these election-related efforts the “top priority” for student leaders of this historically black institution, known as “the Mecca.” At the university in Northwest D.C., students can sign up to use a service known as TurboVote, an app that sends notifications about upcoming elections. That app was touted on the move-in day handout.
“These are the types of things that our alums, our administrators, our students are dedicated to, and are always going to be dedicated to,” Jackson said. “Because unlike other institutions, Howard has a responsibility not only to our students but to the black community as a whole.”
This focus on civic duty is not happening just at Howard. College campuses across the country are expected to roll out similar efforts for their students in the coming months.
The Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University, which collects and analyzes data on student engagement, reported that 18 percent of undergraduate and graduate students voted in the 2014 elections, a percentage that did not factor out students who are not U.S. citizens. The institute released a report this month that included recommendations on how colleges can boost student voting and political education.
“We view the current political climate as an unusual opening — and mandate — to improve campus conditions for student political learning, discourse, inclusion, agency, and participation,” a letter in the report states.
Students are diverse and enter institutions of higher education with a strong set of ideas, said Nancy Thomas, director of the institute.
“They’re not empty vessels into which we pour knowledge — they have a lot of ideas already,” she said. “They’re excited, they’re charged up, they’re ready to talk about these issues, and they’re ready to turn out the vote. I just can’t predict the volume, I can’t predict the voting rate, at all.”
TurboVote, the system Howard uses, works with companies, nonprofits and colleges, according to a spokesman for Democracy Works, the nonpartisan organization that runs the app. George Washington University also will be working with the app this year, said Amy Cohen, who heads up a task force on voter engagement at that school
“We’re a national university, and so we draw students from all around the country,” she said. “It makes it a lot easier for us, not only to keep track of how students can manage those individual rules and laws, but also help them actually participate.”
George Washington plans more efforts to engage the voters on its campus, including a mid-October event designed to pump up students about sending their absentee ballots, Cohen said. The goal, she said, is to make it “a big party.” Food. Balloons. Potentially, a very large mailbox.
“We heard stories that students didn’t send their ballot in because they didn’t have a stamp, or they didn’t send their ballot in because they were larger than a standard envelope,” she said. “So one way to mitigate that is to have this . . . but also to make it more fun.”
Another nonpartisan effort that seeks to engage campuses and encourage student participation in elections is the All In Campus Democracy Challenge, a national project that recognizes participating colleges and universities for their efforts. The challenge is an initiative of Civic Nation, a nonprofit organization.
“We think that the role of higher education is to graduate active and informed citizens,” said Zaneeta Daver, director of the challenge. “Most campuses have something along that line in their mission statement. We just want them to engage students in that process a lot more.”
Among the new student voters moving into Howard this month was 18-year-old Nia Anderson of Atlanta. Her mother, Aungelique Proctor Anderson, spoke of how exciting the day had been. A new chapter. Something Nia had prepared for all of her life. It was time, Proctor Anderson said, to let go.
Nia was already registered to vote, and there was information about absentee ballots in her daughter’s welcome packet.
“Oh, I think it’s wonderful,” said Proctor Anderson, clad in a Howard shirt given to her by her daughter. “The activism gets started right away, from Day 1.”
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified Kayla Waysome in a caption.