Efforts to boost registration, early voting ramping up on WMU campus

Contact: Erin Flynn

A student votes in the Bernhard Center during the 2020 primary elections.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Broncos vote early. That’s the message from WeVote, a nonpartisan organization at Western Michigan University focused on increasing civic engagement on campus.

"This is really a fundamental goal of higher education to prepare citizens to live in this democratic society," says Dr. Denise Keele, professor of political science and WeVote faculty co-chair.

The group is ramping up its efforts as Election Day nears, raising visibility and opportunities for students to register to vote and learn about candidates and issues. Historically, participation is relatively low among young voters. In the 2018 midterm elections, for instance, WMU student-voter turnout was 34.5% among those registered. WeVote hopes to change that by breaking down barriers to the process that students commonly face.

"We're really encouraging students to vote early and to make a voting plan," says Emma Baratta, WeVote student co-chair. "You have the ability to go and vote in-person beginning on Sept. 25. You can go and vote early in Michigan or you can request an absentee ballot and then drop it off at your clerk's office."

A new partnership with TurboVote offers a one-stop shop to help students with registering to vote, voting by mail and setting up election reminders. Students can get startedby visiting the website. WeVote also supported a resolution recently passed by the Kalamazoo City Commission that will extend the clerk's office hours and establish a satellite office inside WMU's Bernhard Center.

"Many students are first-time voters and they're just getting used to this process. They're always changing addresses. It's the most heartbreaking thing on Election Day to have students come to vote at the Bernhard Center and then realize they need to go someplace else," Keele says.

The resolution also allows clerks to add postage to all absentee ballots and increase the number of secure lock boxes around the city where ballots can be dropped off. The goal is to encourage early voting to alleviate crowds at precincts on Election Day, both to increase safety during the pandemic and also decrease pressure on clerks.

"There are lots of ways to become civically involved. One of the easiest and first things should be voting," says Keele. "But there are these barriers about address and registering and knowing how that process works and sort of getting in the system. So, we're there to assist that process. Because once you do it once, then you can become a lifelong voter."

Getting the Word Out

New health and safety guidelines prevent WeVote from using many of its traditional tactics to get the word out to students about voting. So the group is adapting by enhancing its social media presence and enlisting the help of partners in the Bernhard Center and Residence Life to deliver messaging. It's also created a new resource for faculty members that includes tools for presentations as well as opportunities for virtual or in-person class visits from WeVote representatives.

"Faculty are our best resource for encouraging civic engagement with students," says Emily Duguay, director of theatre arts management and WeVote staff co-chair. "So their participation in this process, their participation in the mission of WeVote's work to increase civic engagement among students in a nonpartisan manner, we really value that partnership with the faculty."

In addition to elevating awareness and connecting students with the tools they need to vote, WeVote is also committed to providing nonpartisan information about candidates and issues.

"Since the Supreme Court decided in 1979 that students could choose to vote where they live if they change residency and live on a campus or move to Kalamazoo, they have a choice in where they actually vote. And so that helps students vote where they are. But it also gives higher education a real responsibility to make sure that we're providing nonpartisan, accurate information," Keele says.

"The information comes from so many different sources that it can be really hard to know what's correct, especially now when you have everyone sharing things on social media," adds Baratta. "I think students are really feeling the importance of voting because we are in such a polarized time right now. And no matter what you believe, you're like, 'I’ve got to vote to see this country go the direction that I want it to go, wherever it may be.' So, I think the passion and the energy is there. I think it's just about knowing how to do it.'

It's also important, Baratta says, for her peers to realize that their vote can make a difference and can impact their lives. With activism and social justice front and center right now, she's hoping that will translate into an increase in civic engagement as well.

"It's about learning how to educate yourself within the system, educate yourself about who's running and what they're running for, not just thinking about party affiliation. What are their values? What are your values? How do they align?"

Students and the entire campus community can stay up to date on the latest announcements, events and resources on the WeVote website.

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.