University of Nebraska-Lincoln sophomore Kendall Bartling first developed a love for election work as a 14-year-old freshman at Grand Island Senior High School.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2018, according to Bartling, he and two other student service deputy registrars set up a voter registration drive at the school. That drive ultimately was the first step of his journey toward joining the Husker Vote Coalition upon arriving at UNL. And it made his return to hold a similar event at Grand Island Senior High on Oct. 18 all the more special.
This time, instead of being a self-described squeaky-voiced high school freshman, Bartling’s return to his alma mater came on behalf of the Husker Vote Coalition, a group he now chairs, and he helped to both educate and register new voters ahead of the 2022 midterm election. Outreach efforts like the Grand Island visit are just a small part of the work that the coalition has put forward in the fall semester — and a sign of the work that the coalition hopes to continue moving forward.
“Our impact is not just going to be on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, but the community that surrounds it,” Bartling said, adding that the group wants to “affect as much change across the state as we can.”
From voter registration events to visiting high schools and everything in between, Bartling and the rest of the Husker Vote Coalition members have had a busy semester. It’s been a successful one, too. By far the most notable of the group’s achievements came on National Voter Registration Day, Sept. 20, when the coalition set a UNL record by registering 167 new voters in a single day. Through voter information and registration tables set up around campus, the coalition was able to set an impressive bit of history.
Furthermore, according to Bartling, the Husker Vote Coalition has been able to register 1,161 voters since Jan 1, 2022.
Registering 167 voters in one day underscores the group’s growth since the beginning of the semester. Since September, the Husker Vote Coalition has grown to include 26 total members.The group’s growth is exponential, he said, and is mainly been due to the recruitment of 16 deputy registrars and five non-deputy registrar vote ambassadors, the latter of which are out-of-state students who were unable to get the necessary certification to register voters in Nebraska.
Most profoundly for the coalition’s executive board members, UNL professors are directly imploring students to get involved with the Husker Vote Coalition’s work.
“One of the really nice things we noticed as these people started to register with us is that some professors, mainly Kelli Boling through the College of Journalism, is incentivizing becoming a vote ambassador through extra credit,” Bartling said.
Still, the most pressing task at hand for the Husker Vote Coalition this fall has been preparing the UNL (and greater Nebraska) community for the elections. The coalition has held multiple “Nights of Listening” over the last two months — events held to help inform and educate the general public about the voting process and an individual’s rights as a voter. Aside from that, according to Husker Vote Coalition board member and second-year UNL student Maggie Nielsen, the group’s campus outreach efforts have expanded.
That’s thanks to the UNL community’s overwhelming support for the coalition’s work and the receptive feedback that their efforts have received, according to Nielsen. From different student organizations inviting Husker Vote Coalition members to speak at meetings to University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green’s all-in for democracy pledge on UNL’s campus, the group has seen a tremendous response to their efforts.
In addition to setting up voter information and registration tables at nearly all of the colleges on UNL’s City Campus, Nielsen said that coalition members have spoken with the UNL Panhellenic Council, the National Panhellenic Council and the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.
Ahead of the 2022 midterms, a round of elections that historically see lower turnout numbers than presidential elections, one of the most important things Nielsen has stressed this fall is just how important these elections are.
“I think people often, when they think of what elections they should and shouldn’t participate in, they just think of presidential and that’s it,” Nielsen said.
But that’s a misconception, she said.
“It’s very important to be involved in the civic community around you and use the voice you can have to say ‘I want to see this in my community, and this is the one of the most direct ways I can make sure that happens.’”
Bartling agreed. While maintaining a high voter turnout in the UNL community is crucially important to the group, they understand that recording a 74% voter turnout like UNL did in the 2020 presidential election is unlikely. However, thanks to a combination of a civically engaged Husker community and the Husker Vote Coalition’s outreach work, the group is optimistic for a high voter turnout on Nov. 8.
“Even with really civically engaged people, midterms tend to get skipped by a lot of people, but I think we have the right combination to have a strong midterm election,” Bartling said.
Data backs up Bartling’s claims. Each year, the Husker Vote Coalition receives voting data from the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement. According to that data, UNL’s voter registration increased from 88% to 92% between the 2016 and 2020 presidential election, and voting rates of registered students increased from 69% in 2016 to 81% in 2020. In addition, the UNL community voted at a higher rate in the 2018 midterm elections (44.2%) than the national average (39.1%). The UNL community received the “Gold Standard” designation for its voter turnout during the 2018 midterms.
As for the group’s plans in the buildup to Election Day, most of their hard work is done. Bartling stressed the importance of ensuring that Nov. 8 is a day for Husker Vote Coalition members to go vote, and a few social media posts that share voter testimonials in the coming days is all the group has planned. Additionally, the coalition plans next week to offer a “pledge to vote” table outside of the City Campus Union, where students can make a pledge to participate in the 2022 midterm elections and hear from Husker Vote Coalition members about their voting stories.
Some members, like Husker Vote Coalition election observer chair Madison Hurst, will be in the City Campus Union serving as the polling station’s election observer.
“I know that part of it is making sure the polling place is compliant with the Americans with Disability Act and other statutes,” Hurst said. “I’m excited about that, to sort of get a different look on Election Day being an election observer.”
Once Election Day ends, the group will get right back to work.
The coalition has several important deadlines and events on the horizon, like preparing for the 2023 Lincoln elections and continuing to recruit new members, including a new vice chairperson. Additionally, Hurst said shared the Husker Vote Coalition is working with a similar student organization at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, and that the groups hope to begin a consistent working relationship to increase civic engagement across UNL campuses.
So, while the Husker Vote Coalition is confident that the 2022 midterm elections will be a shining indictment of their hard work this fall, they know that there’s still more work to be done.
“All in all, we have our work cut out for us,” Bartling said. “The first day to request a ballot is in December for the primary elections for the city, so we’re right into election season. The end is never the end.”