By Sydney Leibfritz
As the November 6 midterm elections draw nearer, students must make a decision, not just in who to vote for, but whether or not to embrace their right to cast a ballot in the first place.
According to the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement, only 37.9 percent of Sewanee students turned out to vote in 2016 despite an increase in the number of students who registered. While the University’s turnout rate dropped from 39.1 percent in 2012, it also fell well below the national average of 48.3 percent for universities.
All in all, as more students require an absentee ballot and its consequential effort, the number of students we see actually casting a vote diminishes.
Fortunately, the 2018-2019 Democratic engagement initiative affectionately known around campus as Yea, Sewanee Votes! is working to change this trend.
In partnership with the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, Voter Friendly Campus, CivicTN, Campus Election Engagement Project (CEEP), and TurboVote, the initiative has worked to achieve the mission set forth in their action plan: “to increase voter registration, education, and turnout among Sewanee students, faculty, and staff, and foster a campus culture of civic responsibility that will keep students, faculty, and staff engaged even after the midterm elections.”
Sharron Bockman (C’18), who serves as the Office of Civic Engagement’s post-baccalaureate fellow for student programming, is leading the initiative alongside Sewanee’s 2018 CEEP fellows, Ali Chastenet (C’19) and Emily Badgett (C’20).
“Democratic engagement initiatives are not new to this campus. We’ve been doing [voter engagement] for a while now, though we’ve never had CEEP fellows. It feels like people on campus are excited about this in a way they haven’t been before,” Bockman said.
Badgett explained her excitement for the CEEP fellowship by saying, “Seeing these low turnout rates is really disheartening, and I really wanted to be a part of changing the trend we’ve seen in recent years. It’s important to show students that voting can be one of easiest steps to becoming civically engaged.”
To reach their ultimate goal of increasing voter turnout within the campus community, the trio works to eliminate barriers for students trying to vote, whether that means helping them register or decoding the mystery of what exactly their home states require for absentee voters.
Although registering to vote tends to be relatively straightforward, Bockman notes that some states like Texas require in-person registration as opposed to virtual registration through Turbovote. To combat the inevitable confusion generated by varying state policies, the initiative is in the process of compiling a state-by-state resource guide that anyone can access to have their questions answered.
The biggest hurdle to student voting lies in the fact most students require an absentee ballot. Given the student body mostly consists of those who cannot commute to their designated polling places, students have to exert more forethought in order to vote.
Between mailing in a request for a ballot, receiving it, voting appropriately, and sending it back to election commissions, absentee voting can be a tricky and lengthy process. By walking students through the process, Yea, Sewanee Votes! hopes students will see how their vote is worth the mild inconveniences.
Aside from helping students navigate these institutional obstacles, Yea, Sewanee Votes! dedicates much of its resources to creating a culture where students are encouraged to adopt a civic mindset. From hosting panel discussions on what it takes to restore the political center to voter registration drives led by students, Yea, Sewanee Votes has made a conscious effort to remain visible around campus and interactive in the months leading up to the November midterm elections.
So what’s next for the initiative? As voter registration wraps up, Yea, Sewanee Votes! plans to concentrate its energy on voter turnout. The activities range from bringing in former members of Congress Bob Carr and Melissa Hart to offering an exclusive screening of the unreleased film One Vote with a panel immediately following.
For students looking for ways to get involved with the organization, Bockman suggests joining the organization on Engage or reaching out to either her, Chastenet, or Badgett.
As Bockman said, “Voting is a privilege we are given in this country and your right as a citizen. Your vote always matters.”