Throughout the fall semester, a common sight in the Nebraska Unions and college buildings has been students getting the word out about the upcoming election.
These vote ambassadors are members of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Husker Vote Coalition, a student-led initiative to engage students in the democratic process. The coalition is a nonpartisan initiative and aims encourage civic engagement among the campus community.
Members of the coalition help register voters and conduct voter education events throughout the year, covering topics such as voter rights, polling places, understanding the ballot and what each elected office is responsible for, how to vote early and more. The coalition does not endorse or oppose any candidates or issues.
Andrew Brown, assistant director of Community Engagement in Student Leadership, Involvement and Community Engagement, said there has always been a focus on voter registration and voter education on campus, but it became a student-led effort in 2021.
“I wanted more student involvement, more peer-to-peer conversations,” Brown said. “It’s a phenomenal leadership opportunity, and a chance to work with local election officials.”
The coalition received national recognition for these efforts in 2021 through the All In Campus Democracy Challenge, a national competition for colleges and universities on voter registration and voter turnout. Nebraska logged a 92% voter registration rate, and 74% of students turned out to vote in the 2020 general election, compared to a national average of 66%.
The Husker Vote Coalition has four student leaders on the executive committee, who organize around 30 vote ambassadors. All receive training from the Lancaster County Election Commissioner to become deputy registrars, which allows them to help students and campus community members register to vote.
Ken Bartling, a sophomore political science and economics major from Hastings, Nebraska, is chairperson and chief executive of the coalition. He became involved his first year as a Husker after working with the Hall County Election Commissioner during the 2020 election, before he was even old enough to register himself.
“I was registering voters across community high schools, and I realized that the youth population, 18-24, has the lowest voting turnout, in terms of voting age groups,” Bartling said. “Being able to go to high schools and bump those numbers up was really promising and exciting. Empowering the rising electorate is the most important thing we can do and that all starts with getting them registered, so they can cast their ballot.”
Through a friend, he learned about Brown and the Husker Vote Coalition in the fall of 2021 and quickly became part of the new, student-led initiative.
“Probably, the best thing about doing this is having those conversations with students and seeing that ‘aha’ moment when they realize they have a voice and that it’s important to be engaged,” Bartling said.
His experience with the Husker Vote Coalition and as a political science major led him to a job with the Lancaster County Election Commission this past spring and summer, an experience he relished. He’ll also be returning on Election Day to assist with phone calls, polling places and other responsibilities to help the election go smoothly.
“It was great to work with Commissioner (Dave) Shively and the office staff because they do wonderful work,” Bartling said. “(Dave) has worked in that position for 23 years, and he one of the foremost experts in Nebraska elections, so he let me ask a lot of questions and I learned a lot.”
With the midterm election just weeks away, Bartling said the coalition is next planning a social media push to remind the campus community to vote either early or on Election Day, and some are receiving training to become election observers.
They will also be hosting two more Night of Listening voter education events at 7 p.m. Oct. 20 and Nov. 2 in the Nebraska Union. More information can be found here.