Four out of five eligible student voters at Washington University in St. Louis will not vote in the midterm elections Nov. 6. And that’s if all goes well.
In 2014, only 15.7 percent of students voted in the midterms compared to the national university average of 19.1 percent. The Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement, through its WashU Votes initiative, wants to increase that number to at least 20 percent through a number of programs and initiatives starting Monday, Sept. 24, with National Voter Registration Week.
At locations across campus, WashU Votes volunteers will register students to vote in Missouri or their home state and offer information about absentee voting and voter identification laws. On Thursday, Sept. 27, the Gephardt Institute will host “Engage Democracy: Why You? Why Now?,” a panel discussion with former Congressman Richard Gephardt; Nancy Thomas, director of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University; James Clark, vice president of community outreach at Better Family Life; and junior Luka Cai, a Gephardt Institute Civic Scholar.
The Gephardt Institute will continue its work throughout the fall, hosting events on and after Election Day.
“Voter engagement is complex,” said Stephanie Kurtzman, the Peter G. Sortino Director of the Gephardt Institute. “Voter registration is a critical piece of the puzzle, but just one piece. It’s also important to engage students in the process of democracy, encourage them to make informed decisions on their ballots, and help them to develop a concrete plan to get to the polls and actually vote.”
Washington University students, like young people across the nation, vote in smaller numbers than other segments of the population.
The problem is not indifference, said Tory Scordato, voter engagement fellow at the Gephardt Institute. Rather, students often are confused about voting laws and get derailed by voting day logistics. For instance, some students believe they need a Missouri driver’s license to vote in Missouri. They don’t — students can use their Washington University identification and sign an affidavit that they live here. Other students wonder if voting in Missouri affects their residency status in their home state. The answer is no.
“For a lot of our students, this is their first election, and many are coming across state borders,” Scordato said. “It can be confusing, but our volunteers are trained to answer your questions. And TurboVote makes it easy to register, get reminders and polling place information.”
WashU Votes is part of Engage Democracy, the Gephardt Institute’s broader initiative to provide the campus community with the skills needed to contribute to a thriving democracy. The program is funded by Karen and Bruce Levenson, a 1971 alumnus.
“Our short-term goal is to get our students registered and to the polls on Nov. 6,” Kurtzman said. “But our long-term goal is for our students to be engaged citizens for the rest of their lives.”