Published: December 09, 2020
Getting out the Vote
This year, UT launched a major, campus-wide, nonpartisan effort to get students registered to vote – and to the polls – to make sure their voices are heard.
By Jessica Blatt Press
For the last 13 years at UT, Mary Anderson, professor of political science, has been asking the same question of students when they start her American Government class.
“Tell me something you’re interested in that government doesn’t play a role in,” she poses to the sea of faces before her. This class fulfills a social science requirement, which means she reaches students with a variety of majors and interests.
“Nobody has come up with an answer,” she says — and she’s heard it all.
She once had a student insist, for example, that as a music major, he just wanted to play his instrument and didn’t need to care about government. To that, Anderson asked, “Well, do you care about the National Endowment for the Arts? Do you care about copyrights on music?”
Her rallying cry is to show students that when it comes to elections and, more broadly, civic engagement: “There is absolutely nothing that would give someone the reason to be completely disaffected and not rise to the occasion of weighing in on these really important decisions,” she says.
It’s this passion that Anderson — in partnership with Ian McGinnity, director of the Office of Student Leadership and Engagement — brought to UT’s larger-than-ever get-out-the-vote efforts this year.
“Our mission is educating students, through a nonpartisan lens, that voting is important,” says McGinnity.
Best Laid Plans
While voting in the 2020 election has come and gone, plans to register students and get them to the polls began well over a year ago, when Anderson and McGinnity decided UT should join a nationwide initiative called the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, an effort to nurture civic engagement on college and university campuses.
During previous election cycles, going back to 2016, Anderson and McGinnity had informally banded together to get out the vote. But involvement in ALL IN requires creating detailed goals and plans, a task Anderson and McGinnity welcomed as they set their sights on increasing voter turnout by 10%.
So they invited representatives from different parts of the UT and Tampa community (students, staff, faculty, alumni and a member of the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections office) to launch UT’s first ALL IN coalition. Part of the appeal of ALL IN is that as students graduate, as faculty inevitably go on sabbatical and as staff invariably changes, the coalition can evolve — rather than disappear — so its efforts can continue into the future and new members can build on past group progress.
“With each graduating cohort of students, we’ll have to keep re-energizing and educating, but that’s why we’re here,” McGinnity says.
Of course, there are barriers to getting college students to vote, even in non-pandemic circumstances. A glaring one at UT is the demographic makeup of the student body: More than 50% of students come from out of state, requiring them to apply for absentee ballots or switch their voter registration to Florida. There’s also the universal hurdle of competing for college students’ time. “It’s pretty low on their list of things to do,” Anderson concedes.
UT’s initial ALL IN proposal included a host of multifaceted elements, but then COVID-19 hit — rendering many in-person plans impossible and forcing Anderson, McGinnity and the dedicated team that had rallied behind the efforts to pivot.
Debate watch parties, for example, became Zoom watch parties. A guest speaker from the local Athena Society who was invited to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage gave students an online presentation. On-campus registration events were whittled down to just a handful of events, like one held on National Voter Registration Day (the fourth Tuesday of every September), which included masks and physical distancing.
“We couldn’t have splashy events, so we relied more on email and social media and different communication forms, so that students would still get the information they needed,” McGinnity says.
For all of the obstacles posed by the pandemic, many innovative solutions emerged. Anderson emphasizes that involving both young alumni and students in this campaign was key. “You need young people to pull this off. Students are more apt to listen to recent grads than they are to us,” she says.
Spreading the Word
One of those young people is Juliana Fray ’21, who rose to the challenge of her campus supervisor of elections role by creating a video Q&A to address students’ most pressing questions about registering to vote and getting to the polls. The video was distributed via social media and shown regularly during classes.
Others are Lindsey Dickerson ’19, who led the launch of the group’s Instagram account, @UTampaVotes, to spread information and build excitement around ongoing civic engagement, and Casey Bauer ’19, who, after years of work, successfully got UT’s Election Day polling place moved in 2020 to a location that’s much closer: First Baptist Church, which is directly across the street from campus on West Kennedy Boulevard. (For more on Fray, Dickerson and Bauer, see the sidebars.)
Meanwhile, McGinnity and Anderson worked with their faculty/ staff network of colleagues to get out the vote in other ways.
For instance, Anderson emailed important information to all the department chairs and McGinnity made sure that brochures from the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections reached student groups, from fraternities and sororities to athletics and intramural sports teams. The two of them have also begun overseeing the creation of a handbook to be distributed to all faculty, with resources on how to incorporate civic engagement into their classrooms, whether they teach art, business, philosophy or anything else.
“The social sciences are well versed in this, but if you ask someone who teaches biology to try to infuse some of this civic discourse into their classes, they’re understandably petrified to do it, because they don’t want it to spin out of control,” Anderson says. Developing a handbook, then, will help faculty in all disciplines navigate difficult conversations, establish ground rules and engage students across the curriculum on issues of responsible citizenship — not only during election years, but always.
“We’ve got to be willing to hear the other side,” she says, referencing revered political scientist Diana Mutz’s insistence, in her book, Hearing the Other Side, that, “If we don’t hear the other side, we’ve lost democracy.”
And as students who want to be heard loud and clear know well, the first stop is the voting booth.
“Social media is kind of my thing,” says Lindsey Dickerson ’19 — and that’s an understatement.
As an undergrad, the communication and political science double major singlehandedly grew the Instagram presence for the UT College Republicans student organization from 10 followers to nearly 1,000 — in a year.
Her commitment to that effort confirmed for Dickerson that Instagram can be a useful platform for sharing bite-sized information in a meaningful way. That’s why she decided to apply her gift for social media campaigns to this year’s election with the launch of @UTampaVotes, a nonpartisan Instagram account that’s devoted to spreading reliable information about where, when and how to vote, as well as sharing testimonial videos from faculty, staff and students about why they vote.
“My hope is that @UTampaVotes turns into a hub for encouraging political discourse and civic engagement on campus, even outside election years,” says Dickerson, who is a sponsored research administrator at the University of South Florida and hopes to return to UT for graduate school.
A self-described centrist, the Tampa native is adamant that, as she says, “If we all sat down and had a discussion, even on the most seemingly divisive topics, we would all be a lot closer than the media and parties have us thinking, by pitting us against one another.” And she believes that the first step toward progress is opening our minds — and ears.
So far, the account has more than 300 followers, and features infographics about registering to vote, factoids about elections and cheeky videos, including one of Ryan Welch, assistant professor of political science, talking to his, um, cat about the importance of voting.
Dickerson says the success of the Instagram effort can ultimately be measured in several ways. There are the metrics, of course — how many students register and how many actually turn out to vote. But there’s also the sense of community that the page has the potential to foster.
Growing up, election season was no joke in the home of Juliana Fray ’21.
“We always had more signs in our front yard than any other house,” Fray says. “As I got older, I realized it was because my dad was a conservative Republican and my mom was a liberal Democrat.”
That politically energized upbringing ultimately led Fray to UT, where she is majoring in political science and double-minoring in law, justice and advocacy, as well as speech studies. All of which has made Fray the ideal candidate to serve as UT’s second-ever campus supervisor of elections, a role created by the Student Government organization in 2019. (She’s the first to serve during a national election.)
In each of Florida’s 67 counties, there’s a professional supervisor of elections — a person who oversees the efficiency and legality of the voting process. The campus version of the role is charged with rallying students to register and vote not just in presidential elections, but in all elections.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the presidential election, but we forget that 97% of all other elections are state and local,” says Fray. “It’s so important to vote so that we understand who we’re putting into office and to make sure that we’ll have our views represented in government and politics, especially at the local level.”
For her first big project, Fray did a video Q&A with Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer. It’s a three-minute clip addressing the most pressing questions students have, and it aired on social media and during classes. She also plans and oversees campus elections. This fall, during the pandemic, Fray supervised the election of two first-year senators and two campus-wide senators, moving voting to an online format with the help of the Student Government organization.
For Fray, who hopes to pursue graduate studies in applied politics and political management, this role is just the beginning. “I’m really lucky that I get to trail blaze this role. This isn’t just an after-school little fun thing that I get to do — it’s something that I want to dedicate my life to. I want to make the world better through this work, and this is just the first stepping stone.”
Spartan Stats on Voting
It’s hard to know what grade to give a campus on its get-out-the vote efforts if there’s no reliable data behind it. That’s why, in 2017, UT joined the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement, a Tufts University-based initiative that provides colleges and universities with stats about voter registration and turnout on campus.
What was learned: UT lags about 12 points behind other campuses, suggesting lots of potential for improvement. Data for the 2020 election won’t be available until the summer, but given how much passion was poured into this year’s efforts, all signs point to the numbers heading in the right direction.
It was the fall of 2016, and while volunteering at the Hillary Clinton field office during her presidential campaign, Casey Bauer ’19 couldn’t help but notice a big, red X drawn across the UT campus on a regional map.
“What’s up with this?” he questioned the campaign staffers around him. “Students don’t vote,” he was told. “There’s not even a polling location on campus.”
Bauer, who was chair of the UT College Democrats, was aghast at the prospect of the entire UT community being overlooked not just for efforts like campaigning, but for initiatives like voter registration. So he stepped up to change things.
Armed with clipboards and voter registration forms, Bauer immediately started registering students of all political ideologies. “The question everyone always asked me was, ’Now that I’m registered, where do I go to vote?’” says Bauer.
The answer rattled him: Students were assigned to vote at a polling location that was two miles from campus — which may not seem far, but for students without easy access to transportation, it was a hike.
“There’s already so many barriers to voting, and the look on students’ faces when I told them where they’d have to go made me realize what a big issue this actually was,” says Bauer.
So Bauer organized a shuttle, securing a van and enough University-insured volunteer drivers to make trips on Election Day, to and from the polling place. Still, there weren’t enough seats. In 2018, Bauer doubled his efforts. Still, it wasn’t enough.
He could’ve thrown up his hands and given up — Bauer knew he’d be graduating in 2019, and that it wouldn’t technically affect him anymore. Instead, he dug in, studying precinct boundaries and (politely) pestering the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections to consider changing the location.
His work paid off: This Election Day, students were able to vote at First Baptist Church on West Kennedy Boulevard, across the street from campus. “I think a lot of young people are turned off by politics or don’t trust it,” says Bauer, who’s now a data director at NextGen America, a political action committee that targets 18- to 35-year olds, making sure they get out and vote. “I wanted to at least show that, look, it takes a lot of time to finally see the changes you want, but it can actually happen.”