Rutgers University–Camden Civic Scholars Launch Statewide Initiative to Register High School Seniors to Vote

By Tom McLaughlin

Every high school senior throughout New Jersey may soon be registered to vote, thanks to a new statewide, nonpartisan, virtual voter registration and education initiative launched by the Civic Scholars program at Rutgers University–Camden.

Project 555: Youth Voter Engagement aims to register high school seniors in every public high school – 500 in total – and 55 of the largest private high schools in the state.

“From day one, our Rutgers–Camden Civic Scholars created and implemented this ambitious initiative with the idea that it isn’t just about registering voters for this election, but creating lifelong voters.” – Simanti Lahiri

“From day one, our Rutgers–Camden Civic Scholars created and implemented this ambitious initiative with the idea that it isn’t just about registering voters for this election, but creating lifelong voters,” says Simanti Lahiri, program coordinator for student civic engagement, who advises the project. “A principal focus of Rutgers–Camden and our Civic Scholar program is to enable students to have worthwhile experiences serving in the community while helping them to realize that engagement is something they can and should do for the rest of their lives.”

Project 555 is the brainchild of Nitan Shanas, a senior majoring in economics, urban studies, and psychology, who then invited his fellow Rutgers–Camden students to join the effort. Shanas was interning this summer with the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group (NJPIRG), a Rutgers University-based public advocacy group, when he realized just how complicated voting registration is and how important it is to focus on getting youth more involved in the process.

“Young voters are among the largest demographics and yet not so likely to vote, due in part to disinterest, as well as suppression and disenfranchisement,” says Shanas, a Cherry Hill resident. “I thought Project 555 would be a neat way to address youth voting in a meaningful way while connecting different parts of the state together and in one project.”

Rutgers–Camden Civic Scholar Nitan Shanas got the idea for the initiative when he realized just how complicated voting registration is and how important it is to focus on getting youth more involved in the process.

Rutgers–Camden Civic Scholars are currently aiming to work with up to 40 high school ambassadors from 20 schools to participate in the inaugural New Jersey Ballot Bowl, High School Division, a competition among schools to register the most student voters. Project 555 is partnering with the New Jersey Department of State on the competition, along with future projects.

With the help of their high school advisors, half of these ambassadors will be registering their classmates for the competition. The remaining ambassadors are taking part on a less-intensive basis, focusing on amplifying social media messages, researching and gathering educational materials for the initiative’s website, and organizing peer-to-peer conferences.

In addition, Rutgers–Camden Civic Scholars are available to host classroom presentations, a texting hotline, and virtual conferencing services to any interested high schools.

“Our programming is intentionally meant to be flexible so that we can tailor our plans to fit the needs of every teacher and class,” says Shanas.

Project 555’s website, which went live Sept. 15, will ultimately feature a free, public resource hub that includes a variety of youth-oriented educational materials. These include an interactive map showing ballot box drop-off locations, a calendar with important election dates, a timeline of key voting dates in New Jersey history, and a fun voting history scavenger hunt. Visitors will also soon be able to view video testimonials from participating high school seniors throughout the state.

Rutgers–Camden Civic Scholar Alex Figueroa notes that part of their mission is having young people know the importance of their thoughts, opinions, and voices.

Through all their efforts, says Shanas, Project 555 functions on the idea that “every voice matters” and that casting a ballot is one of the primary and most effective ways to express one’s voice.

“Our society is made better when higher numbers of people participate in the political process, as it leads to diversity of thought and hence more representative policies,” says Shanas. “I feel fortunate to live in a country where voting is an option.”

Rutgers–Camden Civic Scholar Alex Figueroa echoed the sentiment, noting that young people today are “the voices of the future.”

“Having young people know the importance of their thoughts, opinions, and voices is part of our mission,” says the Pennsauken resident and English major who serves as the public relations administrator for the project. “As Dr. Lahiri noted, we want to educate them to be lifelong voters, and getting registered is just the first step.”

Rutgers University–Camden is partnering on Project 555 with a host of organizations within and outside Rutgers University. They include several organizations committed to social justice and inclusion, such as the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and the NAACP New Jersey State Conference.

“The reason we are involved in this effort is because we believe in the franchise of voting for any and all individuals,” says Safeer Quraishi, administrative director for the NAACP New Jersey State Conference. “We don’t care who you vote for, just that you vote in the first place.”

Rutgers–Camden also teams with education-focused organizations, such as the New Jersey Social Studies Supervisors Association, as well as those devoted to promoting voter engagement, including the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, ATNJ Education Fund, NJPIRG Students, and the Rutgers University–New Brunswick-based Youth Political Participation at the Eagleton Institute of Politics.

“These organizations have been extremely helpful in the development and facilitation of Project 555, bringing additional perspectives and insight to our work and mission,” says Shanas. “It is also incredibly exciting to unify all of these partners and schools throughout the state under one initiative, and all from my makeshift home office.”

Lahiri underscores the importance of focusing the project on registering an often-forgotten population, explaining that voter suppression happens by race, class, and age – but people rarely focus on the latter.

Moreover, she applauds the persistent efforts of the Rutgers–Camden Civic Scholars, who also include organizing director Tania Martinez, a junior political science and philosophy major; education director Aliyah Jones, a junior social work and psychology major; and youth civic engagement coordinator Austin Ginsberg, a senior theater arts major.

Despite their own youth, says Lahiri, they are committed to making sure that high school students are not left out of the democratic process.

“They are young, but working incredibly hard on this project,” says Lahiri. “It’s really inspiring to be around them and to help them in any way possible.”

Project 555 still seeks additional participants. High school students are encouraged to contact Ginsberg at ag@project555.org and college students should contact Martinez at tm@project555.org.

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