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University of Dayton student initiative helping to register and engage students for big election

By Hayden Doyle '21

A University of Dayton student-led initiative is working to register students and get out the vote for Election Day, Nov. 3.

UDayton Votes is a five-member nonpartisan group, led by senior Erin DeCero, that encourages voter and civic engagement on campus. It is a program of the Fitz Center for Leadership in Community, in collaboration with the Department of Political Science. The group’s members are ambassadors for two national organizations: The Andrew Goodman Foundation and the Campus Election Engagement Project.

Typically, the group’s goals are to help students register to vote and learn about political issues. However, its focus changes during a presidential election year.

“Usually, in non-election years, we focus more on voter-registration efforts,” said DeCero, an accounting major from Downers Grove, Illinois. “What we’re doing now is more get-out-the-vote efforts. So, we’re talking a lot more about how to get students to the polls.”

This year, that discussion has been greatly complicated by COVID-19. In years past, the group would often set up a table outside of Kennedy Union and talk to passing students. They would help students fill out registration forms on the spot, then collect and mail them.

“It’s been interesting, for sure, as we transition,” she said. “Obviously, this year we cannot do table hours. So, we’ve been trying to figure out how to replace that face-to-face interaction with students.”

She said the solution has come in the form of online voter-registration and Zoom meetings.

“We’re meeting with as many student organizations as we can,” she said. “We offer to meet with anyone, any student groups. We’re also doing some virtual PATH series, because we know that’s a good way to reach a lot of students,” who receive points toward their housing options.

Team members will walk each organization through the process, such as how to register online, and the choice of voting in-person or absentee.

Grant Neeley, associate professor and chair of the political science department, has been very pleased with what he has seen from UDayton Votes this year.

“The whole UDayton Votes team has really stepped up during this time of uncertainty and found creative ways to engage with UD students to register students and provide information about voting” he said. “Focusing on virtual engagement, they've worked with UD's athletic teams and student organizations to provide the information needed via Zoom meetings. The whole team has been great to work with and really flexible in adopting different strategies to reach students.”

Working with school sports teams has been one of the highlights for the group. They partnered with the University’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee to make sure student-athletes will have the opportunity to vote, despite their busy schedules.

“We did meet with every athletics team, which is cool,” DeCero said. “We usually would have a list of each athlete that was going to be at that session, if they’re registered to vote, and what state they’re from. And then we walk them through their options.”

She said most students want to register from their home address and vote absentee. The job of UDayton Votes is to get them registered, have their ballot requested and, when it arrives, help the students mail it back to their board of elections.

“Students typically complain they don’t know how to mail something on campus, or where to find an envelope or a stamp,” she said. “So, we are constantly trying to find ways to cross that barrier. We’re actually meeting with the UD Bookstore staff soon to figure out what we can do to make things more clear on how students can mail things.”

For DeCero, being the team leader also means leaving her stamp on the initiative.

“One thing I’ve been working on is more of a media push, because we do know that that is how a lot of students get their information,” she said. “Obviously we can’t make you register to vote, we can’t force you to request your absentee ballot, but the more times you see it, the more times you’re reminded, then maybe you’ll get that motivation. So, that’s my philosophy: we can get you almost all the way there, and then you have to be motivated to finish that last step.”

Finishing the last step is one of the most important aspects of democracy, but sometimes it’s difficult for young adults to recognize that.

“College students are citizens and for many of them here at UD this election is the first presidential election that they will have an opportunity to vote in,” Neeley said. “Most importantly, voting is a right and a privilege, which is often taken for granted in the U.S. I've been in other countries where citizens have been subject to physical threats and terrorist attacks to try and dissuade them from voting, yet they so value the opportunity to make their voice heard, they still voted. While some might think our voting system is ‘inconvenient,’" we should never forget that our system of governance relies on citizens participating in the electoral process at all levels — national, state and local.”

The Andrew Goodman Foundation’s mission is “to make young voices and votes a powerful force in democracy.” Its Vote Everywhere program provides extensive training, resources and a peer network to support its Andrew Goodman Ambassadors while they work to register voters, bring down voting barriers and tackle important social justice issues on their college campuses.

The Campus Election Engagement Project assists administrators, faculty, staff and student leaders to engage students in federal, state and local elections. Student voting “promotes a more equitable and inclusive democracy and addresses past and present disenfranchisement,” according to its website.

For more information, visit the UDayton Votes website.

Image at top: file photo.

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