Gephardt News Gephardt Stories & Voices on Service WashU Votes

One year until 2024 election, Brown sets sights on voter engagement 

Otto Brown, the Gephardt Institute’s Civic Engagement Manager since June this year, talked to students about Gephardt programming during the Fall Activities Fair in September. He is working with campus, local, and national organizations to help entice students to engage with the 2024 elections. 

“I love this job. I have really enjoyed getting to know our staff as a colleague and getting to know them as people more so than I did when I was a student here.” 

Otto Brown ‘23 may have a new title, but he is a familiar face at Stix House. From leading WashU Votes to being a Civic Scholar—both as an undergrad—and now serving as Civic Engagement Manager, Brown’s passion for democracy is undeniable.  

His interest in democracy predates his years in college. While in grade school, he attended events at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics, featuring speakers such as Justin Trudeau and Pete Buttigieg, to further his passion and understanding for the world of government and politics. Although he didn’t focus on voter engagement in high school, Brown’s interest in government prompted him to look for universities with a pointed emphasis on political engagement. Discovering the Gephardt Institute fulfilled this goal for Brown, and he knew he wanted to become involved with Gephardt when he arrived at WashU. That desire has not changed. 

Soon after watching the primary presidential debates at the Stix House, Brown joined WashU Votes as one of the first three undergraduate students elected to lead the organization. That summer, he continued his work with WashU Votes through an internship at Gephardt. He served as WashU Votes co-chair in 2021 and again in 2022. Brown was also a Bob and Gerry Civic Scholar in the Gephardt Institute’s Civic Scholars Program and focused his Civic Summer on WashU Votes initiatives. He is now the institute’s inaugural Civic Engagement Manager, the first full-time role with year-round focus on voter engagement. 

“I’m excited to be the first one in this position, which is really cool,” he said. “My core focus is thinking about voter engagement strategies on campus, supporting our on-campus polling place, and continuously strengthening our voter engagement numbers.” 

A part of being Civic Engagement Manager is continuing to work with the very initiatives Brown began his Gephardt civic journey with. 

“I advise WashU Votes, which is a lot of fun, now getting to support them,” said Brown. 

Additionally, Brown works with the Civic Scholars Program by staffing the Advisory Committee. This past week, Brown was in Washington D.C. to attend the National Student Summit run by the Students Learn Students Vote Coalition, along with WashU Votes executive board members Sophie Jeffers ‘25 and Hannah Pignataro ‘26.  

“It was a really great opportunity to just learn from different people doing this work in both an academic sense as well as learning from people putting that knowledge to practice,“ he said. 

Brown’s largest undertaking to date is writing the 2024 Action Plan, which will feature both old and new methods of communicating the importance of voting to WashU students and compelling them to both register and vote. This plan for promoting civic learning and democratic engagement is something Brown has worked on since the spring. New strategies are being incorporated that were proposed by faculty, staff, and students from across the university who comprise the WashU Votes Campus Committee. 

“We call them voter champions, folks that are really committed to this work,” Brown said.  

The strategic plan builds off of the 2022 Action Plan, which was rated as a “highly established plan” by the ALL IN Campus Challenge. For Brown, this means working with campus partners and voter champions to see how best to build and implement new ideas to increase WashU’s student voter turnout rates. 

WashU Votes uses a strategy coined as “Canvass the Campus” to encourage more peer-to-peer interactions.  

“They began knocking on doors encouraging folks to vote, and that’s been a really great strategy,” Brown said, “because it’s about that personal connection. It cuts through the noise.” 

The 2024 Action Plan will showcase strategies like those similar to the 2022 WashU Party at the Polls, which elevated Election Day as a significant day on campus to act on and celebrate the right to vote. An example of one of these new strategies is walking parties to vote from large lecture classes, residential floors, or other well-populated areas of campus. Brown hopes this will encourage students to go to the polls with their friends, classmates, clubs, or student groups. Through this, Brown wants to highlight the role community plays in democracy. 

“Voting is related to our university, to our strategic plan, to our mission at the Gephardt Institute, and we’ve got to think how we can encourage students, faculty, and staff to think about this, not just in presidential election years, or federal election years, but thinking how this gets even further ingrained into our culture,” Brown said.