Although her parents were consistent voters, Olivia Oestreicher wasn’t interested in politics until her junior year of high school, when she found herself stuck at home in Shirley, Massachusetts due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
She watched the massive protests erupt in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the challenges of the pandemic and the dramatic 2020 presidential race.
“All of these things happening in 2020 made me have an interest in politics and an interest in public service,” says Oestreicher, who, going into her sophomore year, is now a coordinator for the Northeastern Votes Coalition.
“Voting rights to me was the most all-encompassing way to directly impact all of the other movements that I cared about,” she says. “If you do not have a functioning democracy, how do you expect all of your other issues that you care about to get solved?”
The Northeastern Votes Coalition formed in 2020 under the leadership of Hilary Sullivan, director of Community Service and Civic Engagement in the Office of the Chancellor for Education Innovation, and Theodore Landsmark, distinguished professor of public policy and urban affairs and director of the Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy.
“American politics over the past few years have been so fraught that a student-focused group directly engaged with the voting process seemed an appropriate vehicle for learning and for preparation for involvement in political activity later,” Landsmark says.
The work of the coalition, he says, enabled both domestic and international students to learn from each other about how voting works in the US and observe on the ground whether it is consistent with or different from what they were reading about voting in the media.
Landsmark credits Sullivan with envisioning the coalition and asking him to help engage some of the faculty in supporting student-driven initiatives to increase voting participation. Currently, the coalition consists of 40 members and welcomes students, faculty, staff and any other members of the Northeastern community.
“We are really trying a number of different strategies to advance voter registration, voter education, voter turnout, poll-working support, volunteering for elections,” says Sullivan.
The coalition has some specific targets of how and where they want voter engagement to rise.
According to Tufts University’s National Study for Learning, Voting and Engagement, only 18.8% of the Northeastern students eligible to vote participated in the 2014 midterm elections, Sullivan says. Participation rose dramatically in 2018 to 42.6%.
“Our coalition now has a goal that for 2022 we [will] rise another five points, so we are hoping that we will have at least 47.6% of our students voting,” Sullivan says.
Their lofty goal for the 2024 presidential elections is to increase voter participation to 75%, compared to 57% in 2016 and 68% in 2020.
“We think with students like Olivia and the others in the student government we can get to them,” Sullivan says.
A long-term goal of the coalition is to make Election Day a civic holiday on campus.
“That will make it just so much easier for any member of the Northeastern community to go out and exercise their civic duty on Election Day,” Oestreicher says.
Students who are not eligible to vote or students who are not voting in Boston or Massachusetts could participate in a day full of civic engagement programming on Election Day, she says.
The main goal of the coalition is to educate members of the Northeastern community about democracy, Sullivan says, and to help them understand how civic participation is a part of the fabric of the United States. Besides reaching students eligible to vote in the US, the coalition is interested in educating students who are eligible to vote in other countries and students who can’t vote at all but would benefit from understanding the democratic process.
“If you can’t vote anywhere else, vote for your elected representatives on campus,” Sullivan says.
Members of the coalition meet four times a year as a large group. There are also working groups that focus on various tasks such as outreach policy, communications and events and meet in between all-member meetings.
This fall, members of the coalition will be tabling in-person on campus, interacting face to face with students and other members of the Northeastern community.
Each month leading up to Election Day the coalition will be focusing on a specific task: in September it will be driving voter registration among the Northeastern community; in October it will focus on encouraging voters to look into candidates on the ballot; and in November it will be reminding people to vote in-person.
This year there will be two polling locations on the Boston campus—one at Northeastern Crossing on Tremont Street and another at the Fenway Center on St. Stephen Street.
The Northeastern Votes Coalition also has started an ambassador program. Ambassadors will be assigned to a specific state or region based on the student population of Northeastern. Their task will be to understand that state’s voting laws and grow one-on-one connections with students from that state.
Another initiative that the coalition has undertaken is connecting with Northeastern’s other non-Boston US-based campuses and the university’s international campuses in London, Toronto and Vancouver.
“We are really trying to focus on every single student, no matter where they are, no matter where they are registered to vote, making sure, in some capacity, they are involved in civic engagement, in government, [and] they understand their rights,” Oestreicher says.
The coalition wants to make sure that students, who are US citizens studying abroad, are able to submit their absentee ballots overseas, but also that non-US citizens on the international campuses will participate in their respective democracies.
“The next couple of years will be determinative of the future of the American democratic experience,” Landsmark says. “And to the extent that students become directly engaged with understanding how democracy is supposed to work, we can have, both locally and on all of our campuses, positive effects on the role that the university plays in engaging with local communities.”
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