March 2023

India Bock
St. Olaf student India Bock outside of a polling location on Election Day to conduct exit polling

Maggie Sutton was only 14 when she met her first U.S. representative, Jason Lewis (R-MN), at a fundraiser in Duluth.

“He asked what were my interests in life. ‘Politics!’ I said. He was like, ‘Really, how will you do that?’ I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll get involved in College Democrats or Republicans, or go to law school.’”

Sutton is now a political science major at University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, taking classes on political research methods. “I’m going to learn how to run raw numbers,” she said. During election years, her energy is spent on voter education and registration through a nonpartisan group called Civic Engagement and Voter Education and Advocacy (CEVEA).

“We work to push voter registration on campus,” she said. “We don’t care who you vote for, but that you vote. We want to foster an environment full of advocates who believe in voting.”

To that end, she educates first-year Tommies on the importance of voting (“The freshman class got to see me multiple times”), canvassing at card tables around campus, and hands out postcards with QR codes leading students to statistics on why voting matters, and to TurboVote, where they can register in their home states if they choose not to vote on campus.

“We work to push voter registration on campus. We don’t care who you vote for, but that you vote. We want to foster an environment full of advocates who believe in voting.”

– Maggie Sutton, University of St. Thomas political science major

“I’ve always had a deep interest in how government works,” she said. “Something like 90 percent of [St. Thomas] students were registered to vote in the [2020] presidential election; something like 84 percent voted. At CEVEA, our main goal is bridging that, between those who registered and those who actually voted.”

Passion for electoral politics at Minnesota’s private colleges is alive and well, according to just about every measure you check. In a state that prides itself on leading the list in national voter participation, on-campus political activity is keeping pace.

St. Olaf College in Northfield led the way in 2020, with an eye-popping 87.6 percent of eligible students casting their ballot, according to the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE). That’s more than 21 percent higher than the national average, and nearly 6 percent higher than the college’s 2016 student-voting rate. As a result, St. Olaf won a national award for the highest voting rate among all participants in the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge. It also won the Minnesota Democracy Cup for the highest voting rate for private colleges in Minnesota.

“Our students from Minnesota come prepared to take up their civic responsibility through voting,” said Alyssa Melby, St. Olaf’s program director for academic civic engagement. “For students who come from out of state, it depends: what has been their community’s access levels to voting? The students coming with a predisposition to vote are getting others invested in voting.”

For populations with traditionally lower election-day turnout, Melby designed a strategy to counter apathy and disengagement.

“We hired three BIPOC student election organizers because we know we have a gap between BIPOC and white voter turnout,” she said. “It provides a great learning opportunity to talk about values and how local and state elections can be influential in affecting people’s lives.”

India Bock, a civic engagement fellow at St. Olaf, knows local and state politics well. After growing up in Seattle, she came here for college and now votes in Minnesota, follows local politics, and even attends city council meetings in Northfield.

“It’s so cool to have really accessible local politics,” Bock said. “I went to some very long city council meetings.”

For Professor Christopher Chapp’s Parties and Elections class, Bock worked on an exit survey to learn about voters’ motivations. On Election Day last fall, her team was up by 5 a.m. to drive 45 minutes to a polling place in Minnesota’s 2nd congressional district.

“I was pretty nervous about it,” she said. “Politics is a contentious issue, even though we were coming from a nonpartisan perspective.” The voters’ receptive reactions, however, surprised her.

“People were really committed to helping us do research. No one was rude at all,” she said. “As college students, we’re trapped in a bubble. So it’s important to talk to other people to find out what’s important to them.”

The survey results concluded that the economy and inflation led constituent concerns, followed by reproductive rights issues. Bock later presented the results at a conference.

St. Olaf political science student Gretchen Ellis, like Bock, is all in on civic engagement. She served as an election ambassador for a group of 20 registered Oles, reminding them to vote or to send in their mail-in ballot. As a research topic, she focused on the ideological extremity in campaign rhetoric in House races across the country during the 2022 election.

“One result that really surprised me was that Republicans did not try to match their rhetoric to the district; they stayed conservative,” Ellis said. “Democrats became more conservative. It helps explain the lack of the red wave in midterms.”

At the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement focuses its efforts on voter literacy, hosting debates and creating voter guides.

“It’s very important for us to educate students about the weight of their vote,” said Matt Lindstrom, a political science professor and McCarthy Center director. “It’s important for students to understand the weight of their vote depends on where they vote.”

For example, Lindstrom pointed to Sen. Aric Putnam whose recent win gave the Minnesota Senate a one-person majority.

“The students who voted for Aric Putnam helped shaped the majority in the state Senate—hands down,” he said. “You take 1,000 voters, and even 500, they can make or break an election.”

Back at St. Thomas, students sometimes ask Maggie Sutton why she’s so invested in politics, arguing that “Minnesota is a blue state — so why bother?”

“I say, things can change. They change because people use their civic action and vote,” she said. “It’s a right given to almost all citizens of the United States, and unless you really screw up, you will be able to exercise that right all your life.”

Then she hits them where it matters — voter self-interest: “Young people have a stronger stake than older populations. We’ll be here for longer than my grandmother will.”

By Diane Richard