Since 2010, a former student body president has been leading New Jersey as governor. But opinion polls--and the general news--show that Governor Chris Christie faces increasing scrutiny over various decisions, gaffes, and confrontations with constituents. But behind the public controversy is a state government that shapes students’ lives every day.
Today, the state will elect a new governor and campuses around the state are jumping in to shape the state’s future.
We spoke to the student body presidents at Rutgers University and Caldwell University to learn how student leaders are navigating the election. The two institutions couldn’t be more different. Rutgers is a major research institution, newly admitted to the Big Ten Conference, and sits as the state’s biggest public institution with more than 65,000 students. Caldwell, on the other hand, Caldwell is a private Catholic institution with about 2,000 students.
The backdrop to the 2017 election, of course, is the rancor and vitriol of the 2016 election. That has affected these campuses differently. Evan Covello, Rutgers student body president, thinks 2016 has made Rutgers students more active, but the stakes of state policy are the real motivation for students to be involved.
“What’s made it interesting is the fact that we’ve had years of a governor who hasn’t really done much for higher education,” Covello said. “Even people who haven’t been involved in state government in the past have gotten more engaged in reaction to that.”
Lindsey Hogan, Caldwell student body president, feels her student body has reacted differently.
“From what it seems from the involvement in [the 2016 election], is that we have a very high Democratic student rate on campus,” Hogan said. “Following last year’s election a lot of people weren’t happy with the outcome and I think that kind of steered them away from trying to really focus on this election, which is unfortunate.”
Bringing people together
Both presidents see their role as facilitator and making sure everyone feels they can participate, particularly given the heavily partisan political environment.
“I think that as student government and my job as president, I think that the most important thing to focus on is to make sure that everyone is comfortable and everyone is knowledgeable of the resources that they have provided for them,” said Hogan. Caldwell’s student government has worked to better empower politically active student organizations, like the Socio-political Society, have the resources they need to engage students in the election.
“Caldwell is really close-knit so all of our student clubs and organizations really tie into the academic departments that they’re involved in … I think that student government [is] the liaison that ties together the students and the faculty and the staff and all of the resources on campus,” Hogan said.
Similarly, Covello has sought to use student government as a way to support other organizations doing voter engagement work. Early on, he convened a civic engagement task force, comprised of politically affiliated student organizations.
“My job is to help bridge that gap between the awareness about the election and some of the barriers that could come up between [students] and voting,” Covello said.
Working Working with Administrators
At both institutions, the student governments have worked with their university administrations to support voter education and registration efforts. At Rutgers, RU Voting has provided a central venue for students to access information and resources about voting. It’s a university-driven initiative that has helped student leaders drive students to central information. They are even planning to provide shuttles to students to get to their polling locations, according to Covello.
Hogan cited some 2016 election programming as particularly reflective of how the Caldwell administration works with students.
“Last year when we had those open forums, we had the president of the university there, we had the VP student life, we had counseling services, and they all actively participated in the conversation as well,” Hogan said. “It was really nice to see everyone kind of engage in a civil conversation no matter what their role was on campus.”
Both campuses has a unique set of challenges, but Rutgers faces a particularly tough one: geography. The New Brunswick campus is large and sprawling, covering two jurisdictions. Depending on where a student lives on campus, they may have a totally different polling location and slate of local candidates.
“If you live in one dorm, your voting location could be somewhere totally different than someone who lives in the building across from you on campus,” Covello said.
This is part of why Covello has focused so much energy on making sure everyone who is trying to get students to the polls is equipped with the right information through RU Voting.
Even in off-off-year elections, student leaders are committed to ensuring students are a part of the process with the information and resources to be informed voters. In New Jersey, Rutgers and Caldwell provide an interesting roadmap for institutions of all sizes.
The key: be a resource to a diverse set of student groups.
As Covello said, “The number one thing is the university really needs to work in unison in terms of getting students out to vote and getting participation up. I think it’s important for Rutgers but really anywhere that faculty and student orgs are on the same page about information about basic things like polling locations.”
We will see what comes from the 2017 elections, but Covello is already looking to the future. He has advocated for election days to be recognized as university holidays so that students are able to miss class in order to vote.