Senior Otto Brown steps down as SU Election Commissioner, plans to continue StL civic work after graduation

| Contributing Writer

Senior Otto Brown stepped down as SU Election Commissioner in early February. He plans to stay civically involved in St. Louis after graduating (Bri Nitsberg/Student Life).

A Gephardt Institute Bob & Gerry Virgil Civic Scholar, a St. Louis County election worker, and a Missouri Notary Public, Senior Otto Brown has demonstrated his irrefutable passion for civic engagement throughout his four years at Washington University. Brown is majoring in both Economics and Political Science, and has been involved in election work and voter education since he first stepped foot on campus.

Brown served as the Student Union Election Commissioner, a position he held from this past fall until Tuesday, Feb 7, when he decided to step down in anticipation of his graduation in the spring. 

During his tenure, Brown tackled questions such as “how do we continue running secure elections?” and how to establish “legitimacy” in the Student Union by ensuring that “there is a secure…and accurate pipeline between the student body and what people in Student Union are doing.”

Before beginning his voter work on campus, Brown noted that the Common Reading Program (CRP) played a pivotal role in his engagement. The CRP was a former part of Washington University’s Bear Beginnings for incoming first-year students ,during which students are assigned a book to read over the summer. 

Brown said that his book conversation was facilitated by the previous Associate Director of Civic Engagement at the Gephardt Institute, Theresa Kouo, who was one of the first people he met at the University. It was through her and through this experience that he initially became involved with civic engagement. 

“I really value the democratic process and democracy and having an informed citizenry,” Brown said of his passion for politics. “I think that’s a central part of the American story that we’ve lost.”

During Brown’s first semester in the fall of 2019, the Democratic Debates were in full swing. “I was really interested in the electoral process,” Brown said. “I got involved by watching the Democratic Debate watch parties at the Gephardt Institute.” 

The opportunity ultimately introduced him to WashU Votes, a student organization that emphasizes voter education and engagement. Originally a graduate-student-led club, Brown was one of three undergraduate students elected to leadership positions as the club transitioned to being undergraduate-led. Brown has served as co-chair of WashU Votes for two years. 

In his four years at the University, Brown has fostered his interest in election work through various on and off-campus involvement. Brown described seeing hoards of people come in and out to vote, a large majority of whom were students, as he volunteered as an election worker at WashU for the midterms. Brown said he was inspired by the turnout. 

“A lot of people were voting for the first time, and that was really special,” he said. Brown also revealed that while the voting experience is often characterized as unpleasant, the volunteers were all determined to shape the process in such a way that they could show voters how fun the process could be. “It can be a way for you to engage, find community, and rally around this idea of voting, he said.

Brown has also served the larger community as an election worker at the center of Clayton. “I was over there for two elections for the April primary of last year, and in the August primary.” He worked these elections partly due to the current shortage of election judges, a consequence of the pandemic. 

“It was a great opportunity to humanize people,” Brown said. “A political label defines a person’s politics but it doesn’t necessarily define who they are.” 

Brown also tackled another factor contributing to a lack of voter engagement post-pandemic by becoming a Missouri Public Notary. “I became a notary in 2020 because Missouri legislature changed the laws in response to COVID and allowed mail in ballots for anyone…but every mail in ballot had to be notarized,” he said.

 Although Washington University has notaries on campus, with most people working remotely at the time, Brown sought to fill the gap. “If you’re given this opportunity to vote by mail, the barrier to you utilizing that shouldn’t be the fact that WashU doesn’t have a notary.” .

Missouri stands out to Brown as an impactful location for civic work. Brown mentioned  the new voter ID law that Missouri passed that prevents students from voting with out-of-state IDs or student IDs.

 “The [civic] work here in Missouri and at WashU in particular is really important”, Brown said, especially in comparison to other top universities which are not typically situated in states as restrictive as Missouri. “We also have a pretty early voter registration deadline so students actually need to pay attention way before the election,” Brown added. 

“WashU has the potential to be a leader in that space; in part because we are a leader already, but we can do more and be the gold standard for universities across the country to look to us as a university that’s situated in a state that’s not necessarily easiest to vote in,” Brown said.

Brown believes civic engagement is pivotal to creating change in a community. “Because of the online world that we live in, we’ve lost a little bit of the ability to have conversations and to think critically,” he said, emphasizing how important it is to consider how we might progress in the future. “What are the systems that you can use to create change in a way that’s productive? And how do you hear what other people have to say…while disagreeing with ideas and not people?”

Following his graduation, Brown will be returning to campus and the Gephardt Institute to serve as the Civic Engagement Manager. Thinking about the kind of impact he hopes to drive in the future, Brown emphasized the importance of his work in higher education. “We, as an institution, have an obligation [to be informed],” he said. 

Brown expressed his hopes for the university community as a whole shooting for the moon. “I would love for WashU to be the most civically engaged campus in the country,” he said. 

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening at Washington University and beyond.