By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Lydia Behnk stood in front of a University of Nebraska at Kearney residence hall as a group of students approached on a crisp fall evening.
“Hi, are you registered to vote?” Behnk said with an enthusiastic smile covered by a light blue face mask.
It’s a question the UNK junior from Elgin has asked hundreds of times since September, when the American Democracy Project launched its early/absentee voting drive. Behnk, who is studying business education, was a regular at the informational tables set up across campus.
“For a lot of students, this is going to be their first presidential election,” the 20-year-old said. “It’s nice to be able to walk them through that process.”
The American Democracy Project initiative encouraged students to “have a plan” for the upcoming election, whether it’s voting early by mail, stopping by the election commissioner’s office to fill out a ballot or showing up at a polling location on Nov. 3.
At the informational tables, Lopers were able to complete or change their voter registration information using the state’s online site and fill out forms to request an absentee ballot. Volunteers from the American Democracy Project and a variety of UNK student organizations involved in the effort were on hand to answer questions and provide assistance.
“The research is pretty clear that once a person votes for the first time, they’re much more likely to continue voting in the future,” said Diane Duffin, an associate professor of political science and coordinator of the American Democracy Project at UNK.
“But that first time can be daunting, especially if you’re away from home,” Duffin added. “There are a lot of rules governing how to vote, and most people just don’t know those rules. We’re trying to provide that education.”
More than 100 students from 38 Nebraska counties received assistance through the UNK drive, including 27 who registered to vote for the first time. Most of the students who stopped by were looking for information on absentee ballots, allowing them to avoid the crowds and, in some cases, a long drive back to their hometown on Election Day.
According to the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement, nearly 80% of eligible UNK students were registered to vote in the 2018 midterm election, and 35% of those students cast a ballot.
Nationally, voter turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds jumped from 20% in 2014 to 36% in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the largest percentage point increase for any age group.
“I think we have a generation of students coming along who are simply more politically and community engaged,” Duffin said.
Still, there’s room for improvement.
Behnk, a student worker for the American Democracy Project, believes every Loper should make their voice heard.
“A lot of times on a college campus it’s easy to feel like you’re in a bubble. We kind of live in our own world here,” said Behnk, who serves as president-elect of UNK’s Honors Student Advisory Board and president of the Secondary Educators Club.
But, Behnk added, it’s important for students to look beyond campus and focus on issues at the community, state and national levels.
“There are big things happening in this country and our voice is going to be an important part of the decisions that determine where we go in the future,” she said.
Established in 2003 as a nonpartisan initiative of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the American Democracy Project is a network of nearly 300 schools focused on public higher education’s role in preparing the next generation of informed, engaged citizens and community leaders.
At UNK, the group is governed by an advisory council comprised of students, staff and faculty representing all three academic colleges, plus graduate studies and Calvin T. Ryan Library.
In addition to the voting drive, UNK’s American Democracy Project shares “mini-lessons” on topics such as voter registration, early and absentee voting, voter guides and Election Day instructions on its social media channels and website.
The group is also hosting a virtual town hall at 7 p.m. Wednesday featuring candidates from the Buffalo County Board of Commissioners, Kearney City Council, Kearney Public Schools Board of Education, Legislative District 37 and local natural resources districts, as well as advocates both for and against the ballot initiatives on payday lending and casino gambling. The forum, which is open to the public, can be accessed on Zoom using the meeting ID 977 9356 8941.