Yale votes: Students aim to make voting part of campus life

The nonpartisan campus group Yale Votes is working to increase voter turnout and expand voter access in New Haven and across the country.
Student mailing an absentee ballot

(Photo courtesy of Every Vote Counts Yale)

The Yale students’ goal is simple: inspire their peers to vote and get them registered, now and for the long term.

And the students know there’s no better time to build enthusiasm than during a U.S. presidential election year.

We want voting to become a habit,” said Clara Lew-Smith ’22 B.A., one of the organizers behind Every Vote Counts (EVC), a Yale-launched nonpartisan group that is working to increase voter turnout and expand voter access among college students across the country. 

There are a lot of efforts to get out the vote around elections,” said Lew-Smith, who studies global affairs. “But we want to keep that momentum going during the off years and address the long-term systemic barriers to voting through civic engagement and advocacy.” 

Voting,” she added, “needs to be expected and part of campus life.”

EVC is not alone. The Yale Athletics Department achieved 100% registration among eligible voters on its 35 teams — 739 individuals in all. The student-run Yale Historical Review issued a special print edition focused on voting that includes an interview with civil rights activist DeRay McKesson, artwork from Yale students, and 47 statements from students, faculty, and university leaders. And through a campus collaboration called Yale Votes, there has been a stong push to promote civic engagement on campus this fall.

Yale Votes member groups include EVC, the Yale College Council, and the Yale College Democrats. (All registered campus political groups were invited to be part of the Yale Votes coalition. To date, the Yale College Republicans have not participated.) The three groups have helped peers navigate the registration process through in-person and online outreach.

We’re trying to have an all-out attack on the student body with voting,” said senior Molly Shapiro, president of the Yale College Democrats.

Student involvement has been critical to increase voter turnout and ensure a smooth election process, said Burgwell Howard, senior associate dean of Yale College and associate vice president of student life, who oversees Yale Votes.

The students were instrumental partners in my goal for creating an institutional website so that we can be sure to have information and resources available to the community outside of major election cycles,” he said. “They have added social media, targeted ‘street teams’ and peer-based efforts and outreaches to faculty to really connect with the community and engage as many people as possible.

Voting remains one of the most powerful and effective ways to have one’s voice heard in a democracy, and call upon our leaders to represent the views and will of the represented. So our hope with Yale Votes is that that we have set another generation along a lifelong path of being engaged citizens and active voters.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic has forced these groups to shift many of their efforts online — including a recent Yale Voices for Voting virtual event that featured community organizers, a cappella groups, and improv comedy — Yale Votes still has tables across Cross Campus where organizers, while maintaining physical distance, advise students on how to register and vote by absentee ballot.

They have also designated 30 “state captains” who each know the ins and outs of voting in one or two specific states and who connect directly with students from those states. They’ve assisted more than 1,300 Yale students so far, organizers said. 

Saul Roselaar ’21 B.A., an ethics, politics and economics major, said he and the other EVC founding members were motivated by historically low voter turnout among college students during recent elections. Just 45.1% of eligible college students (PDF) voted in the 2012 presidential election, and 48.3% in the 2016 election. Voting rates among the general U.S. population for those elections were 58.6% in 2012, and 60.1% in 2016.

Absentee ballot drop boxes are set up outside the New Haven Hall of Records, 200 Orange St.
Absentee ballot drop boxes for New Haven residents are set up outside the city Hall of Records, 200 Orange St. (Photo credit: Dan Renzetti)

Three years after its founding, EVC now has chapters at more than 50 campuses across the country, including Princeton, Duke, Wesleyan, Brown, Columbia, and Arizona State.

These and other campus voter drive efforts are paying off. By the 2018 midterm elections, a national study found that college students were beginning to exercise their right to vote at an unprecedented level (for a midterm), surging from 19% during the 2014 midterms to 40% in 2018. And, based on calculations Roselaar made using national data (PDF), colleges with active EVC chapters saw turnout increases that were greater than the national average, he said.

A key challenge facing the students’ efforts is the wide variation in voting regulations across states. For instance, Roselaar is from Wisconsin, where his absentee ballot must be at the clerk’s office by 8 p.m. on Nov. 3. In California, a mail-in ballot must be postmarked on or before Election Day and received no later than 17 days after Election Day. 

Despite the challenges, students are eager to learn these distinctions so that their voices can be heard, organizers said.

Voting is cool in a way it wasn’t before,” said Shapiro, who is majoring in history. “Civic engagement has taken on new social significance. There’s a sense of students wanting more information and being grateful for resources.”

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Media Contact

Fred Mamoun: fred.mamoun@yale.edu, 203-436-2643