Ferris named among top schools for student voting

BIG RAPIDS — Officials at Ferris State University are celebrating the school’s inclusion on a national publication’s list of universities which support student voting.

Ferris was included among 150 schools, including seven in Michigan, in the Washington Monthly’s Nov. 1 article, “Which Colleges Encourage Their Students to Vote?” The magazine based its criteria on four factors; including participation in a study that allows colleges to calculate their voter registration and turnout rates, and making data from that study publicly available.

“College students, particularly those who are young adults, are not known for high voter turnout rates. … It is little wonder that politicians spend a disproportionate amount of time and resources on issues important to older — instead of younger — adults,” the article states. “These institutions … show that civic engagement is alive and well on college campuses.”

Using the most recent data available, in the 2016 presidential election, 67.9 percent of the 14,165 Ferris students who were on campus at the time were registered to vote, according to the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement (NSLVE), at Tufts University in Massachusetts

Ferris students voted at a 44.4 percent clip, according to the NSLVE. That figure fell short of the average of surveyed institutions, which was 50.4 percent, but was up 3.6 percent from the 2012 presidential election locally.

Ferris officials credited the school’s Political Engagement Project (PEP) program with helping raise those numbers. The goal of PEP, explained program coordinator and Ferris history professor Christian Peterson, is to increase political awareness among undergraduate students through a variety of methods, in a non-partisan way.

“What we try to do is give students more information to educate themselves about politics and the process of democracy in America,” Peterson said. “We also try to engage students and get them out to vote. … We don’t care how they vote. I try to abide by the old fairness doctrine, and if there’s two sides to an issue, each side gets equal time.”

Among recent activities put on recently through PEP were Constitution Day, when pamphlets on voting rights were distributed on campus; an initiative to provide transportation for students who couldn’t drive to polling places on Election Day; a mixer; and the screening of a film about democracy.

Peterson believes fostering political awareness in young people is key to helping form a well-rounded citizenry. He also said college students can help sway an election. Peterson pointed to the passage of three statewide proposals in the Nov. 6 election, as well as the election of a Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, as examples of what can happen when students go to the polls.

“At Ferris, it’s not self-evident that young voters are going to go Democrat. We have a lot of engaged voters who saw the last election and rallied behind (President Donald) Trump … but I think when you look across the state, factoring in universities with more left-leaning student populations, you can say students were one of many factors that played a part in those elections,” Peterson said.

Peterson believes students were especially spurred to vote by the inclusion of Proposal 3 on their ballots. The proposal, which was passed overwhelmingly by state voters, automatically registers citizens to vote at the Secretary of State’s Office unless the citizen declines and provides all registered voters access to an absentee ballot for any reason, among other provisions.

Peterson said his students — including some who were forced to go back to their hometowns to cast their ballots in-person — were motivated by the prospect of making voting easier and more accessible.

“A lot of Ferris students, and I can hear them, were complaining about having to drive to places like Flint, Lansing and Detroit just to cast their votes. Michigan is not an easy place for young people to vote. So even though Proposal 3 was sort of the ‘unsexy’ ballot proposal, I think a lot of students voted in that race,” he said.

However, not every student feels as strongly about the issues, Peterson said, so it’s validating to see Ferris’ efforts to push those students to the polls being recognized.

“It’s a good feeling, a very surprising feeling,” he said. “We didn’t go out for this and try to get it. But it’s something we can take and build on to try to get even more voters to the polls.”

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