By Fleming Smith
Despite a contentious election season, Sewanee’s success in voter registration shines brightly on any dreary November day. The preliminary data from the Office of Civic Engagement, which spearheaded registration efforts along with the Student Government Association, indicates that more than 250 people registered through Sewanee’s TurboVote this year.
“We registered 523 people on TurboVote, and 245 of those were already self-identified that they were already registered. 258 of those individuals initiated registration,” said Michelle Howell, Coordinator of Student Programs for the Office of Civic Engagement. “Unfortunately, we won’t have the full numbers until Spring 2017. But I crunched the numbers, and 30 percent of the University’s population was registered to vote through TurboVote.”
In past years, the Dean of Students Office handled voter registration, mainly through student involvement.
“During the summer of 2015, the Tennessee Secretary of State’s Office reached out to the Sewanee Student Government Association, asking us to help with their statewide voter registration drive,” says SGA Senator Amelia Warnock (C’18). “With the help of the Secretary of State’s Office, Jewlz Davis, and SGA last year, we created a plan for tabling in McClurg to register people to vote. This year, the Office of Civic Engagement shared the TurboVote resource with us.”
The newly created Office of Civic Engagement seeks to institutionalize the process of voter registration under Howell’s position.
“With our office, we have been separated by community engagement and outreach, and then we came together as the Office of Civic Engagement and really wanted to foster and include political engagement within the University’s mission of creating long-term democratically engaged citizens,” Howell explained.
She hopes that the process can be further improved, especially in terms of local elections, which typically earn a lower voter turnout than general elections. “I think what helped us this year is that it was election year and it was high-tension to vote, but it’s harder when it’s the local elections, and that’s what we’re trying to put more and more focus on,” said Howell.
“With the TurboVote resource, we were able to register many more people than we were in 2015. During the 2015 registration, we registered around 75 voters, exceeding our goal,” says Warnock. “I remember being very surprised at how few people were not already registered to vote and how many people said that they did not want to be registered to vote at all.”
“I have to give a huge shoutout to SGA,” said Howell. According to her statistics, when SGA students tabled in McClurg, registration increased. “I was watching the data, and on the days that they did that, there were huge jumps. And I would credit a lot of the numbers to that.” Voter registration truly became a campus-wide effort as November 8 grew closer, and Howell acknowledged multiple groups for their work in engaging students and community members.
“I know there are already dedicated individuals in Sewanee Democrats and Sewanee Republicans devoted to registering individuals too. Our work studies and our senior Bonner students were trained to register people as well,” Howell said. “I think having these fancy Debate Watches at The Sewanee Inn, with a nice dinner, [that didn’t] hurt either.”
Although the election ended, Howell emphasized that no one should wait until 2020 to vote again or make sure they register. Local elections by state and county take place frequently, and while not as exciting as Clinton versus Trump, they are still relevant to the everyday citizen.
“If individuals didn’t end up getting their absentee ballots in the mail or didn’t end up voting, and they’re still not sure if they’re registered to vote, please stop by and please follow up,” Howell encouraged. “Overall, what we’re trying to get at is a culture of political engagement.”
Warnock echoed Howell’s feelings, saying, “I am very excited to have registered even more Sewanee students to vote, and I hope for the continued political engagement of the people who we helped register.”