Civic School Spirit

In a systemwide campaign, the City University of New York is using campus spirit as an impetus for voter participation on its 23 campuses and beyond.
October 19, 2010

What do school spirit and Election Day have in common? (Hint: It’s not trash-talking. At least, not for the purposes of this article.)

Both, ideally, involve a show of passion and a declaration of loyalty. It makes sense, then, that to boost voter participation both on campus and off, the City University of New York is sending its constituents a new message: Show your school spirit by going to the polls on Nov. 2.

It may not be an entirely novel idea; campus get-out-the-vote efforts are all too familiar, urging students to make a statement by voting simply because they are students, a group with historically low voter turnout rates. But CUNY is taking it to a whole new level.

The 23-campus system is hosting a launch party today for a campus bookstore promotion that offers students, faculty, staff and alumni a 25 percent discount on collegiate apparel -- which customers are then asked to wear to the polls. “It’s a real school spirit campaign,” said Jay Hershenson, senior vice chancellor for university relations at CUNY. “This is a civic push. The university community is encouraged to stand up and be counted and vote for the candidate of their choice.”

The promotion is part of CUNY Votes, a voter education effort targeting the system’s 267,000 students, 260,000 adult and continuing education registrants, and 35,000 faculty and staff. CUNY is providing online resources related to the New York mid-term elections, such as voter registration forms and links to political, government and news sources. Each CUNY campus also has a voter registration plan and at least one voter registration coordinator, Hershenson said.

And the effort may do more than just boost sales at campus bookstores. Bobbi Gentry, an assistant political science professor at Millikin University who earned her Ph.D. at CUNY, said voter education efforts such as this one are crucial. This is even more the case just before midterm elections, which, compared to the preceding presidential election, tend to see a drop-off in voter participation.

“There are young people that vote, and part of our responsibility is to find out what encourages young people to vote so we can do that encouragement in multiple ways -- not just through political parties but also through institutions,” Gentry said. “It’s not that they’re not interested, it’s just that they’re uninformed. It’s the challenge of informing them, and then them informing themselves. So it’s a two-part responsibility here.”

Although youth voter turnout nationwide actually increased three percentage points, to 25.5 percent, between the midterm elections of 2002 and 2006, the state of New York did not fare so well. In the 2006 election only 19 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted, a decline of two percentage points from the previous midterm, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. (The state with the highest youth participation that year was Minnesota, with 43 percent turnout.)

But Gentry is optimistic about CUNY’s endeavor. “I think it can be an effective campaign,” she said. “It provides an opportunity for enthusiasm and solidarity and connecting, and being part of a community that does care about politics."

At the launch party this morning, which will take place at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice's bookstore in Manhattan, speakers will include CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein; Leonard Riggio, chairman of Barnes & Noble (which is offering the apparel promotion at the 11 campus bookstores it operates); and John Jay President Jeremy Travis.

“In New York City last year in the municipal election, only 27 percent of eligible voters participated,” Hershenson said. “Instead of bemoaning apathy, we’re trying to do something about it.”


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