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Students can reinforce democracy

It’s vital that colleges, universities educate young voters about their responsibility.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and challenger Cynthia Nixon

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and challenger Cynthia Nixon arrive for their debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead on Aug. 29. Photo Credit: Pool/Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

As we welcome new and returning students to campus this week and encourage them to participate in everything we offer, we will also emphasize the importance of their participation in our democracy, and in particular their responsibility and their privilege to vote.

Over the last decade, Hofstra University has hosted three presidential debates, a gubernatorial debate, and several congressional and local candidate forums. Hosting the events along with educational programming allows students to see democracy at work. We have had leading commentators share their insights on national and international events and issues. Bringing events such as these to campus means the candidates and issues that matter to students are no longer far away, on TV or in a social media news feed, but immediately accessible to them.

By next year young people between ages 19 and 35 will overtake the baby boomers as the largest living adult population in the United States. Yet their turnout in the 2016 presidential election and especially in the 2014 midterm races was overall the lowest of any age group. However, after each presidential debate on our campus, we saw significantly higher voter turnout (throughout our local election district) and very heavy voter registration. How do we sustain that level of engagement?

This is how colleges and universities can play an important national role. They become a home for civil debate by providing a forum for all sides, by partnering with local organizations and advocacy groups and by finding roles for faculty and staff in and out of the classroom. We can show young people that each of us makes a difference. And in turn, we can remind the public that colleges and universities play critical roles in the common public good, by providing a place for inquiry, discussion, research and engagement.

Because midterm elections typically have much lower voter turnout, our efforts to encourage college students to register to vote and then to exercise that right are even more important because state and local officials and members of Congress can impact the lives of our citizenry. That’s a start, but it is not enough to merely provide students with the information. We must also make the campus a center for civics, civility and public education.

That’s why Hofstra University has introduced Hofstra Votes, a program that combines political and issues education from all sides with get-out-the-vote efforts and voter-registration drives by our academic and student affairs departments as well as our Student Government Association. Our first event, in partnership with WCBS-2 TV, was the Democratic primary debate for New York State governor held on campus last month. Students volunteered, attended and played several roles, seeing history unfold right in front of them. Over the next few months, with the help of the Board of Elections, the League of Women Voters, and organizations that advocate on environmental, international and economic issues, we’ll look at media coverage of the campaigns, the impact of trade and tax policy on the economy, and the impact of deregulation on the environment. We’ll invite other candidates to campus for forums, and provide demonstrations of voting machine technology and buses to the polling places.

Now more than ever, higher education has a responsibility to be a beacon of light, inspiring our newest voters to find a voice and get involved not just for their sakes, but also for our communities and the future of the republic. Every ballot cast is an investment in that future and repayment of a debt to those who sacrificed their lives to preserve our right to vote.

Stuart Rabinowitz is president of Hofstra University.

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