Voter registration efforts kick off before midterms
Last week, former U.S. President Barack Obama stepped back into the public eye on a platform conspicuously popular among young people: Snapchat. In his NowThis Politics interview, Obama made his message very clear: “Young people, in particular, need to vote. And they need to vote in midterms.”
These words, coming from the man who made civic engagement cool and gained the preference of young voters by a margin of 4 to 1 in 2008 (according to TIME), are intended to be a call to action for the upcoming midterm elections. The occasion is as clear as the words themselves: if Obama is coming out of hiding to get students to the polls on Nov. 6, something big must be happening. The challenge facing this effort is also clear: the United States Election Bureau found that only 16 percent of young people turned out to vote in the 2014 midterm elections.
In seven weeks, the inhabitants of all 435 seats of the U.S. House of Representatives and 35 seats of the Senate will be decided in voting booths across the country. Governors of 39 states, including Pennsylvania, will be decided. Hundreds of local positions will be decided. The scope of these elections includes college campuses across the country, including Carnegie Mellon.
Students walking through Hunt and Sorrells Libraries last Monday passed by red-clothed tables arranged with voter registration paperwork and frosted “Vote!” cookies as part of Carnegie Mellon Libraries’ Constitution Day celebration. Library workers answered questions and registered first-time voters as well as students in need of absentee ballots. Outside the Cohon Center, student activists do similar work for Next Gen, a nonprofit political action committee funded by billionaire Tom Steyer meant to promote fighting climate change, hollering out to passersby about voter registration and — of course — free pizza.
Francisco Delgado, a recent chemical engineering graduate, is one of the student organizers registering students on campus. “Millennials make up such a large part of the electorate, but many of us don’t vote,” he explained, spitballing a 51 percent voting rate during years with a presidential election for those between the ages of 18 and 35. According to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), his numbers are accurate: just under 50 percent of eligible voters under 25 turned out for the 2016 presidential election, with slightly higher rates (55 percent) in swing states.
Francisco cited apathy as the main culprit for low turnout, though he can empathize with busy students. Having been a student here, he reflected that for much of his undergraduate experience, he was so focused on work that it was hard to pay attention to things going on in the outside world, even voting. Now that he’s outside, he sees an opportunity for other Carnegie Mellon students to form civic habits early: “We get out of here and we hold positions of power, making a lot of money, and we should make efforts for positive change.”
Darya Kharabi, who also works to register student voters at Carnegie Mellon, didn’t wait to get involved. A junior major in Environmental Studies and Art, she began tabling for voter registration during her first semester at Carnegie Mellon, the fall of 2016. Since then, she has worked in a number of social and political activist groups, both on campus and off, but is cautious about the (not so obvious) politics of activism. “I’m not someone who has grown up in Pittsburgh, and I know that in Pittsburgh there’s a lot of emphasis on neighborhoods, and a lot of neighborhood pride,” she said after being asked about off-campus work. “I don’t feel it’s my right to walk into these communities of people whose lives and whose stories I’m not familiar with and say ‘you need to register to vote.’” Her most effective sphere of influence, she saysa, is within the Carnegie Mellon campus, where she tables six hours per week and canvasses on weekends.
In addition to outside organizations, there was a new effort this August to register first-year students during Orientation Week. Hannah Daniel, a sophomore biology major, was inspired when she attended the March For Our Lives last spring, and worked with a collection of students from both the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon to define actionable initiatives on each campus.
Over two tabling sessions during Orientation Week, while events like House Wars, Playfair, and Casino Night captured the energy of many first-years, Hannah and her colleagues managed to register about 80 first year students to vote. Though that number is smaller than she would like, she’s not discouraged. “I felt successful because I was coming into this with little experience and resources,” she said, describing the challenging process of starting this program from the ground up. “I hope that this is not just a one-time program,” she concluded, “and that this is a catalyst for further voting initiatives here at CMU.”
The scope of this election spans from Obama’s measured Snapchat interview, to Orientation Week registration, to the tables outside the Cohon Center, to the table in Hunt Library for Constitution Day, all pressing one idea: college students need to vote. Students here have taken matters into their own hands and turned that idea into action, in hopes of raising that 50 percent turnout by Nov. 6.
For more information about campus voting initiatives, make an inquiry at the SLICE office on the first floor of the Cohon Center.