College Democrats, Gephardt Institute introduce targeted efforts to maintain student political engagement

| Senior News Editor

College Democrats and the Gephardt Institute have ramped up efforts to maintain high political engagement within the student body as the March 10 Democratic primaries and the November presidential election approach.

Washington University student voter turnout in the 2018 midterm elections was markedly higher than both the 2014 midterm voter turnout and the national average, and the two organizations are hoping to continue the momentum.

Both junior Arik Wolk, president of College Democrats, and Theresa Kouo, the assistant director for civic engagement education at the Gephardt Institute, foresee voter turnout facing potential hurdles—specifically since the Democratic primaries in Missouri will occur during spring break when many students registered to vote in Missouri will be out of state. Additionally, Wolk and Kouo worry that there will not be as much visible attention placed on the elections with the University not hosting a presidential debate.
Still, Wolk said he feels hopeful about the current state of political engagement on campus, specifically after seeing the student turnout at a College Democrats event, Jan. 21, in which the organization hosted campaign representatives for Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Tulsi Gabbard, Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg to inform students on how they can get involved in Democratic campaigns.

“We had standing room only, which was awesome,” Wolk said. “I think it was probably one of the biggest turnouts I’ve seen for a College Democrats event.”

To combat the fact that many students registered to vote in Missouri will be out of the state during the primaries, College Democrats will table in the Danforth University Center to provide absentee ballot request forms, then send them to the St. Louis County Board of Elections. Because voters must get their ballots notarized on campus, the Gephardt Institute will have notaries available on campus during the election periods, as well as postage and envelopes made available to students to make the process easier.

Freshman Sophie Roberts, who serves as the campus coordinator for WashU for Pete, said that she finds her work important because it gives more visibility to young people engaging in politics, giving it more significance.

“In general, it’s really just about, for me, really getting young people’s voices heard, and making sure that they have a place in politics, because so much of it is being run by an older generation, and they don’t see young people as the source that they actually can be,” Roberts said. “So, I think it’s important that young people get the voice that they get that they deserve.”

College Republicans President sophomore Walter Treat wrote in a statement to Student Life that because all of their events are discussion-based, they are all technically geared towards increasing political participation, but that the organization is also planning to host more events specific to the election once the primaries are over.

“Generally, we focus on helping politically-minded students have a space to discuss political and policy issues in order to become more informed voters…As we get closer to November, our programming will likely become more election-focused,” Treat wrote.

Before adding that there is always room for improvement, Wolk said that he thinks the current state of political activism on campus is promising.

“I think we’re one of the more politically active campuses in the country,” Wolk said. “The amount of people that are willing to come out on a Tuesday night after a long weekend to hear from presidential campaign representatives…the amount of students that have worked on campaigns, worked on issues, in Missouri [or] back in their home state. It’s really phenomenal to see.”

The Gephardt Institute has hosted a series of debate watch parties throughout the school year, and plans to continue them through 2020.

Kouo said that with the current political climate, she believes students are becoming more aware and interested in politics, with an average of 50% voter turnout among students.

“Generally speaking, if we’re talking about the average across the nation, we’re doing pretty well,” Kouo said. “That said, I don’t think that we should rest on that…and so our hope is that in 2020, that we get closer to 65% turnout among students.”

For the first time, the Gephardt Institute will work with the Study Abroad Office to ensure that students going abroad during an election cycle know how to submit an absentee ballot.

Overall, the Institute has continued to build its previously existing efforts, including its work with WashU Votes, which was founded during the 2016 election cycle.

Building on their absentee ballot parties piloted during the 2016 election cycle, the Gephardt Institute is also beginning to coordinate with academic departments to educate faculty on how best to encourage students to vote, including putting together voter resource kits with posters and WashU Votes materials. The Institute has already begun to work with the biology department and hopes to eventually replicate these efforts in multiple areas on campus, as well as to target graduate students, who Kuou said voted in lower numbers than undergraduates in 2018.

Kouo said that the Gephardt Institute’s primary focus is to get students to be engaged in democracy year-round, beyond simply voting in elections, but also emphasized the importance of voter turnout.

“We want to do our very best to make sure that we don’t create more barriers for students inadvertently,” Kouo said. “We’re excited that there’s a lot of energy around campus and that there’s energy early. That means that we have more time to be intentional and make sure that students turn out in droves in November 2020.”

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