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College students around the country are preparing to vote — many for the first time — in the fast-approaching November general election.

With healthcare and the pandemic, the economy, the environment, racial justice and social reform, along with many other issues on the ballot, this election is being described as the most important in a lifetime.

And just as the pandemic has forced a reimagining of virtually every aspect of life, registering to vote and casting a ballot look different in the COVID-era as well.

One of the top universities in the nation for student voting, Northwestern is in the midst of a critical push to help students, no matter where they are, get registered to vote through an initiative called NU Votes. The vast majority of this work must be accomplished by Friday, Oct. 2, as voter registration deadlines in some states begin closing that weekend. Absentee ballot request deadlines begin closing a week or two later, but with recent controversies over delivery delays with the U.S. Postal Service, NU Votes is encouraging students to get registered and to request their ballot as soon as possible if they plan to vote by mail.

“Northwestern students have really shown up to be counted in recent elections — in fact, our student body has some of the highest voting rates in the country,” said Rob Donahue, acting director of the University’s Center for Civic Engagement. “But the restrictions of COVID-19 have limited our ability to provide the in-person, peer-to-peer support that makes navigating voting much more manageable for students. It’s critical that students act now to get registered and make their plan to vote if they want their voices to be heard in 2020.”

When students began moving into their residence halls in September four years ago, only 39 percent of eligible voters in the class of 2020 started Wildcat Welcome as registered voters. By the end of the day, that number had skyrocketed to 96.4 percent.

It was no fluke.

Over the past decade, Northwestern voting rates have increased dramatically due in large part to the efforts of NU Votes, an initiative launched in 2011 to promote awareness, registration and participation.

Traditionally, when students stop at one of NU Votes’ welcome center stations across campus on move-in day, they meet face-to-face with a representative who helps them get registered. The NU Votes COVID-era model — built around an online voter services tool, live remote support and an in-person voter services tent where students will be able to complete any physical form(s) that may need to be signed and mailed — is all designed to make registering to vote as easy as possible for all students, whether living on campus or off campus, in state or out of state.