Long before senior Otto Brown could cast his own ballot, he would accompany his parents to the polls in their hometown of Chicago.
“Municipal, state, federal — they never missed an election,” recalled Brown, who is studying economics and political science in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. “We would go to the polls and then to school. It’s just what we did. That’s how I learned that every election matters.”
Today, Brown serves as co-chair of WashU Votes, an initiative of the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement. The group’s work — helping students register to vote, answering questions about absentee ballots and polling places, fostering a culture of civic engagement through events, forums and partnerships — has always mattered. But the passage of new voting laws in Missouri and across the nation makes WashU Votes more important than ever.
“The landscape has changed so much,” Brown said, “It’s really difficult to know how to navigate the different laws. I want to do everything I can to help students exercise their right to vote.”
And by everything, Brown means everything. In 2020, he became a Missouri notary public so he could notarize mail-in ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic. And this year, he signed up to be a St. Louis County election judge so he can assist in the upcoming election. On Nov. 8, he will arrive at the Athletic Complex at 5 a.m. to print ballots, check registrations and troubleshoot problems.
Brown also is committed to finding new ways to educate voters, many of whom will be casting their first ballots. This fall, he and fellow WashU Votes co-chair Spencer Chrein produced the Gephardt Institute podcast “This Civic Moment”; helped launch a voter education social media campaign; and hosted Turnout Tuesday tabling events in the Danforth University Center, where they connected students to voting resources and answered questions.
Common queries included:
Is a WashU ID an acceptable form of identification? Answer: No, not anymore. The new Missouri law requires voters to present an official Missouri driver’s license or state ID or a form of federal identification such as a passport.
Are out-of-students eligible to vote in Missouri? Answer: Yes. The deadline to register to vote in Missouri is Wednesday, Oct. 12.
Does Missouri offer early voting? Answer: Yes, registered voters with an excuse, such as a planned absence on Election Day or a physical impairment, may request a mail-in absentee ballot or vote early at the Board of Elections. Missouri also now offers in-person early voting without requiring an excuse starting Oct. 25, two weeks prior to Election Day.
The hard work of WashU Votes volunteers has paid off in the past. A record-breaking 71% of eligible students voted in the 2020 presidential election, compared with 66% of students nationwide and 67% of the American public. And in 2018, midterm turnout leaped to 41.8% from 15.9% in 2014. The All In Campus Democracy Challenge, a national nonpartisan group that champions student civic engagement, took note of Brown’s role in these efforts and named him a member of its All In Student Voting Honor Roll.
Brown knows cynicism about the nation’s electoral process could dampen turnout this year. He urges students to stay engaged and do their research on the candidates and ballot issues before hitting the polls. Brown said Ballotpedia is a great nonpartisan resource for information about politics, elections and public policy. He also reads the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Voters Guide and listens to the St. Louis Public Radio podcast “Politically Speaking.”
“In the past several years, we’ve seen the erosion of a lot of democratic values both here and abroad,” Brown said. “It would be easy to think your vote doesn’t matter. And, let’s be honest, standing in line to fill in some boxes may not seem like the most exciting way to spend your time. But voting remains one of the most important tools in democracy’s toolbox. It’s not the only way to make an impact, but our democracy can’t function without it.”