Democracy Matters aids student voting accessibility despite COVID-19 setbacks

Democracy Matters members Sammy Solomon '23 and Sara Lawler '23 table in front of the College Center, where they help students register to vote, order absentee ballots, secure transportation to the polls, and answer any questions students have about the voting process. Courtesy of Democracy Matters.

Red, white and blue stickers and voting forms decorate the Democracy Matters registration table perched outside the Vassar College center on Sept. 22: National Voter Registration Day.  “Are you registered to vote?” various Democracy Matters members call out to the students shuffling and skateboarding by.

Democracy Matters (DM), established at Vassar in 2001, is a nonpartisan organization that operates at the College as part of a nationwide effort for voting accessibility. In the past, DM has worked to secure fair elections and voter rights as well as to eliminate big money from politics. While DM activities are heavily tied with Washington D.C. and lobbying at a national level, the Vassar chapter focuses on ensuring that all eligible Vassar voters have the information they need to vote in all local and national elections.

Cassie Cauwels ’22 and Sara Lawler [disclaimer: Lawler is a reporter for The Miscellany News.] are the current co-presidents of DM. Cauwels articulated what drew her to their work. “With the way the current political landscape was looking even back in 2018, I wanted to be more hands-on with activism and I saw that Democracy Matters was working on that here on campus,” she explained. Lawler illustrated what makes their org unique from comparable ones at other schools: “I think because we are such a small campus, we definitely have more influence on a student body than we would if we were at a large research university. I think we try to take advantage of that and differentiate our chapter from those at other schools.”

Sept. 22 was just one of many tabling events DM has hosted this semester. DM set up voter registration tables to give students an opportunity to ask org members questions about voting. Last year, DM established the dorm voting advisor system. Now run through Residential Life and the Office of Community Engaged Learning (OCEL), the advisor system assigns volunteer students to specific residential sites on campus. Students living on campus can direct their questions about voter registration to the volunteer assigned to their residential site.

As the 2020 presidential election—one which Professor of Political Science Richard Born identified as possibly “the most important presidential election in our history”—rapidly approaches, DM’s responsibilities weigh heavier than ever. Since COVID-19 has changed the way voters might cast their ballots, voter accessibility is in a particularly precarious state.

According to DM’s estimates, about 300-400 Vassar students will vote locally this election. Around 20 percent of the student body is registered to vote in Poughkeepsie, with the majority of campus voting absentee for their home states or being unable to vote in U.S. elections.

But for both local and absentee voters, COVID-19 has introduced new challenges to campus voting in particular. Last year, DM members delivered absentee ballot forms directly to students’ dorm rooms. However, because of restricted access to dorm buildings in accordance with Vassar’s COVID-19 safety policies, this is no longer an option. Cauwels and Lawler are brainstorming new methods to better student voter accessibility and combat this setback. As of now, students can drop off their voter registration form in the College Center, where a Vassar employee will collect them and drop them off at the Vassar College Board of Elections.

Born noted that the multiple steps required to obtain an absentee ballot is a barrier in student voter accessibility. “Absentee voting has always been somewhat more difficult than in-person voting. That’s a really, really important factor,” he highlighted.

For students voting in Poughkeepsie, factors like the uncertainty of being able to leave campus and having to re-register if they’ve moved from a dorm to apartment style-living create more barriers to casting their vote. Vassar has also made tentative plans to provide safe transportation to polling locations as an exception to the stay-on-campus mandate.

Still, Cauwels urges these local voters to apply for an absentee ballot. In the state of New York, COVID-19 is considered a valid reason for any voter to request an absentee ballot. Should students who are registered to vote in Poughkeepsie be allowed to leave campus come election day, their absentee ballot can then be disregarded.

Registering to vote locally can be a particularly difficult process at Vassar because the campus is divided into three districts, meaning that students moving to different residential locations on campus may have to repeatedly update their registration. This also poses a challenge for students who are forced to travel farther to certain polling locations. Born explained that Vassar transportation to the polls is a necessity. Cauwels acknowledged the challenges of ensuring that Vassar students submit all the appropriate information and have a voting plan by Election Day.  “While students may be aware of certain things and be able to discuss them, trying to get students to update their voter registration for example, that’s a difficult process sometimes,” she commented.

Despite the efforts of organizations like DM, voter participation among college students has been historically low. According to Born, there are many factors that influence whether or not someone votes. Since voting is, in his words, a “habitual behavior,” younger people may be less likely to vote if they haven’t previously.

“Once you start, it becomes easier the second, third, fourth time,” said Born. “It’s a habit, and like almost all habits, getting started is difficult but once you get started then it just becomes automatic.”

Dutchess County is currently run by a Republican majority, which may explain why the notoriously liberal Vassar campus has three voting districts.

“Whether there’s a coordinated effort or not, I don’t know. I don’t know whether you need a coordinated effort, but it’s pretty clear from the standpoint of state after state where Republicans are in power, they have been engaging in voter suppression,” Born said. College communities are typical targets of GOP gerrymandering because they tend to lean blue.

Another concern for local voters is the understaffing of polling locations. Polling volunteers tend to be older, and thus are less likely to help out this November for fear of contracting COVID-19. Cauwels emphasized DM efforts to recruit poll workers for November. Although Vassar students living on campus are not permitted to volunteer themselves due to Vassar’s COVID-19 safety policies, Cauwels encouraged off-campus students to consider working the polls if possible.

Born noted that while there were some complications due to understaffing during the primary race, such as those in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, they will likely be less of an issue in the November election, “now we’ve calmed down and we understand what the risks are and how we can protect ourselves with masks and washing our hands and so forth.” While Born doesn’t foresee an understaffing problem at voting locations near Vassar campus, he speculates it could be more of a problem in bigger cities.

Despite all these complexities, Cauwels and Lawler are aiming for 100 percent voter participation for eligible students in the upcoming race.

 “Not only are first-years reaching out about registration, I’ve gotten more questions from sophomores and upperclassmen, which is great to see,” said Cauwels.

In the 2018 midterm elections, more 18-29 year-olds voted than in previous midterm races, indicating a potential uptick in voter turnout for an age demographic that is known for not showing up to the polls. Fifty Vassar students voted locally that election.

“The standard fact of life is that there’s a strong relationship between your likelihood of showing up and your age,” Born reflected. “It’s inconceivable that young people, even young people in college, are going to be voting as much as their elders, but in battleground states that are closely divided maybe that will make the difference.”

Cauwels and Lawler, young people who buck the trend of apathy, are confident that Vassar is dedicated to voting accessibility this November.

Cauwels affirmed, “I feel really supported and I hope that conveys the same message to students. Vassar is here to make sure your vote is counted and your voice is heard.”

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