Sowing the seeds of a culture of democratic engagement at UNLV

Amber Sevart, Program Coordinator for Service Programs, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

June 4, 2019

In the spring of 2018, the Office of Service Learning and Leadership at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, began looking into implementing democratic engagement programming and initiatives on campus. While our office houses several programs with long histories of service, service-learning, and volunteerism, this explicit focus on democratic and voter engagement initiatives was new for us. We felt this was a critical extension of work we were already engaged in and particularly needed on campus.

UNLV is a 30,000 student R1, MSI, AANAPISI, and HSI institution, and was recently named the country’s most diverse national university by U.S. News and World Report. Additionally, Las Vegas has been identified as the urban center most likely to represent, today, what the US census is projected to look like in 2050. A significant majority of our students come from the county in which we are situated, which means that most of our students are already invested in the health and vitality of the surrounding community. Yet data from the 2014 midterm elections showed us that only 15% of Nevada voters ages 18-35 cast a ballot. Feeling both troubled by this number and enthusiastic about the opportunities for further engaging young voters in Nevada, we began laying the groundwork for democratic engagement programs through our office.

We started by looking into initiatives taking place on other campuses around the country. We found many schools had partnerships with TurboVote, NSLVE, the Campus Election Engagement Project (CEEP), and so many more. Our staff was relieved to find so much community and enthusiasm from outside organizations helping to engage students in this work. We began the process of learning more about each of these organizations and how we could work together to increase democratic engagement at UNLV.

Our next steps involved making a realistic plan for our first year, identifying funding, and involving student leaders in the implementation of these efforts. We were fortunate to be able to identify funding for a number of campus programs including a contract for the TurboVote platform for our campus. Given the short timeline before the 2018 midterm elections, we decided to prioritize voter awareness and outreach efforts on campus. We created two Civic Engagement Coordinator roles in UNLVolunteers, our office’s student council that plans service programs encouraging civic engagement and positive social change. These two coordinators, with the help of a staff advisor, were tasked with implementing democratic engagement events on campus. At the same time we were approached by CEEP’s Nevada State Director about hosting paid Fellows to support these efforts. Our Civic Engagement Coordinators decided to engage in this work as well, becoming hybridized roles and broadening the scope of their work, adding further resources to our efforts.

Before we knew it, the fall 2018 semester was upon us, and the midterm elections were less than three months away. We launched TurboVote on campus in late August, just after the semester began. We knew if we were to be successful in maximizing our reach with the UNLV community in this short period of time, we needed to work alongside the myriad of community organizations that had much more experience and expertise organizing, registering, and educating voters in our community.

UNLVolunteers hosted a variety of small tabling events on campus and pushed voter registration at every service event we hosted, reaching hundreds of students. On National Voter Registration Day, we hosted an event with six community partners, including the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, Mi Familia Vota, and Human Rights Campaign. With the help of these partners, we reached hundreds more students, facilitating voter registration and education activities throughout the day. Our final program was our #VoteTogether event. Equipped with a variety of activities, food trucks, student volunteers, and a partnership with Nevada Conservation League, we hosted the #VoteTogetherUNLV Early Voting Block Party. In the free speech zone on campus, outside of our on-campus early voting location, we educated students about candidates and issues on the ballot, what they needed to vote on election day, and celebrated the voting happening at our early voting location on campus.

After election day, we celebrated the progress we made in institutionalizing democratic engagement at UNLV while cataloguing the many ways in which we want to continue growing this area of work. We helped our community partners celebrate the incredible depth and breadth of the work they did in organizing young voters across the state of Nevada. Powerful evidence of this has recently emerged: In the 2018 midterms, 37% of young Nevadans ages 18-35 cast a ballot, a 22 point increase from the 2014 midterms. According to CIRCLE, young people made up 19% of the Nevada electorate in the midterms, more than doubling their impact from the 2014 midterms. We are excited for the small part we were able to play in this significant achievement.

When the celebrations were over, we began identifying next steps to further build a culture of democratic engagement on campus. One of our initial goals in this first year of initiatives that we failed to achieve was on the surface one of the easiest: signing up for the NSLVE. Unfortunately, due to a peculiar legal issue we were never able to achieve this goal and look forward to circling back to this and other steps moving forward. Several that we’ve been discussing with our CEEP partners in particular include establishing a collaborative committee to help steer democratic engagement initiatives more broadly on campus, working with our colleagues in the libraries on campus to host on-campus polling stations for all elections (on-campus polling is currently available only for federal election dates), and to capitalize on one of our office’s existing strengths - supporting service-learning pedagogy on campus - to help integrate more democratic engagement experience into the academic space for students.

We are deeply appreciative of the support we have received for this work from our colleagues on campus, our local and national partners, and above all the students who make this work possible. We are incredibly excited to continue deepening democratic engagement on campus in the semesters to come.

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