Gephardt News

WashU Expands Voter Engagement and Registration Efforts

Younger generations comprise the majority of the United States electorate, yet they are not the majority of actual voters. According to the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of the electorate are Gen Xers, millennials, and post-millennials. However, these voters cast 21 million fewer votes than older generations in the 2014 midterm elections.

In 2014, only 15.7 percent of WashU students voted in the midterms compared to the national university average of 19.1 percent. The Gephardt Institute, responsible for overseeing voter registration and engagement for all students on campus, endeavored to challenge this trend and build on momentum gained during the 2016 Presidential election through our WashU Votes initiative.

Tory Scordato (left), AB ’18, served as our Voter Engagement Fellow and primary manager for election year programming. With the support of staff and WashU Votes volunteers, Tory set a goal of increasing voter turnout to at least 20 percent through a range of strategic initiatives and programs, including new student outreach in August, National Voter Registration Week in late September, and a post-election analysis event on November 7.

“I appreciated the level of enthusiasm that surrounded this election cycle,” Tory shared. “When I was a first-year student at WashU, I don’t remember talking to anyone about the 2014 midterms. This year, though, there was a visible concern about the issues and an inspiring amount of conviction and caring towards political engagement. It may be because of the historic stakes this year, but it felt radically different than the last midterm cycle.”

Tory’s team led a university-wide effort to transform increased student interest into informed voter turnout and long-term engagement. They focused on the importance of students’ identities as life-long voters rather than as voters in a single election.

Read more about our key voter engagement programs, events, and outcomes below.

National Voter Registration Week

Voter registration is a critical component of our broad voter engagement efforts. To ensure eligible students were empowered to vote and to increase the university’s registration numbers, the Gephardt Institute expanded National Voter Registration Day to a week-long celebration beginning Monday, September 24. Throughout the week, institute staff and volunteers assisted both undergraduate and graduate students in the voter registration process and provided information about the absentee ballot process, voter ID laws, and other ways to get involved. Volunteers staffed 20 tables across the university at locations including the Danforth University Center, Olin Library, Bear’s Den, The Village, and central buildings in each of the academic schools. Over the course of the week, the institute supported students as they updated their addresses and registered an additional 554 new voters using TurboVote, a nonpartisan, web-based platform.

The Gephardt Institute also coordinated Constitution Day activities and a series of absentee voter information events at seven locations across campus to answer questions and encourage students to request their absentee ballot or make an Election Day plan.

Engage Democracy Initiative

In addition to facilitating voter registration efforts, the Gephardt Institute launched Engage Democracy, a new university-wide initiative that aims to educate the campus community about the processes and civic skills needed to participate in a thriving democracy. The initiative is generously funded by Karen and Bruce Levenson, AB ’71, and includes four other components:

  • Common Ground Grants: funding for initiatives that aim to repair, address, and prevent polarization at WashU and in the St. Louis community.
  • Public Service Fellows Program (beginning spring 2019): a selective program placing Brown School students in 10-month positions at St. Louis City Hall or city departments where they will directly contribute to civic efforts in the region.
  • Engage Democracy Workshops: a series of customizable workshops to equip students and campus partners with knowledge and skills to effectively engage in the process of democracy, including “civics 101,” media literacy, and citizen tools for communicating with elected officials.
  • Senior Fellow in Public Policy: Tom Irwin, our new Senior Fellow in Public Policy, offers two political science courses (“Just Do It! Running for Political Office” and “Just Do It! Skills That Turn Passion Into Policy”) each year and is available to provide consultation, training, and career advising in the hard skills required for public policy and political campaigns.

On September 27, the institute hosted a special panel discussion entitled “Engage Democracy: Why You? Why Now?” The event featured a critical discussion about the state of our democracy at local, state, and national levels. Speakers included former Congressman Richard A. Gephardt; Nancy Thomas, Director of the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life; James Clark, Vice President of Community Outreach at Better Family Life, Inc.; Luka Cai, Gephardt Institute Civic Scholar, Class of 2020; and Tom Irwin.

Election Day and Beyond

On November 6, the Gephardt Institute hosted a “Party at the Polls” as a final push for students to cast their ballot and to celebrate Election Day. Volunteers answered last minute questions, and participants enjoyed snacks, photos, giveaways, and live music before and after casting their vote at the Athletic Complex, WashU’s on-campus polling place for all Missouri voters living on the South 40 and the North Side.

The following afternoon, the Gephardt Institute and WashU’s Student Union co-hosted an event analyzing what the midterm election results mean, what is likely to happen in the lead up to 2020, and how students can stay engaged beyond Election Day. Speakers included John Hancock, former director of the Missouri Republican Party; Michael Kelley, former director of the Missouri Democratic Party; Denise Lieberman, Adjunct Professor at the School of Law and Senior Attorney and Co-Program Director of the Advancement Project’s Power & Democracy Program; Julia Hughes, MPH and MSW Candidate at the Brown School; and Luka Cai, Class of 2020.

According to preliminary data from the St. Louis County Board of Elections, we saw a 96.8 percent voter turnout rate for on-campus residents who registered to vote in Missouri, compared to 88.6 percent in the 2016 Presidential election and 15.7 percent in 2014. These results are cause for celebration, and we are committed to supporting the campus community in building on this momentum in the months and years to come.

Noah Rennert, WashU Votes volunteer, Class of 2020, said, “Choosing to engage in our democracy by casting a ballot is the foundation for lifelong civic engagement. As a campus community, we can build on our efforts this fall by actively participating in the local elections next semester.”

To learn more about opportunities for year-round involvement in voter engagement and our Engage Democracy initiative, click here.

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