Student passion and creativity driving democratic engagement

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

With typical strategies like tabling on the mall, visiting classrooms, organizing on-campus forums and debate watch parties sidelined due to the pandemic, student leaders are stepping-up their creativity on social media to engage students in what some are calling the election of a lifetime.

Leading the way are student partners in a democratic engagement campaign called Cougs Vote, coordinated by WSU’s Center for Civic Engagement in the Division of Student Affairs.

“Our students are focused on how to best help students with registration and voter education in the COVID-19 environment,” said Ben Calabretta, associate director of WSU’s Center for Civic Engagement. “Their passion for making sure students are democratically engaged has led to many creative strategies.”

Cassidy Zehner, a mechanical engineering student and ASWSU director of legislative affairs at WSU Everett, is creating infographics for social media to promote voter deadlines and sharing information on a gaming platform called Discord.

“My strategy is to make voter information as public as possible and kind of put it in peoples’ faces,” said Zehner. “Some people won’t search out information, which is ok, but I feel my job is to be a little annoying about it.”

The ASWSU director of legislative affairs at WSU Spokane, Colin Beauvais, is working closely with the Diversity Center and other student groups to produce video clips for social media, create an interactive Google map with ballot drop box locations in the greater Spokane area, and  recently organized a systemwide virtual question and answer session with Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, which was attended by more than 100 students.

“We are a campus consisting mostly of graduate and professional students who have heavy demands in health care fields, leaving us with little free time,” Beauvais said. “Yet, the issues surrounding this election make it worth our effort to make a loud enough noise so that our students will listen.”

Working towards inclusivity

As a student with hearing loss, Samantha Fakharzadeh, ASWSU director of legislative affairs for the Global campus, is determined to increase access to information about registration and the voting process, regardless of age or abilities. She ensures voter education materials are accessible and shares that information in spaces where people with disabilities are more likely to see it.

Being inclusive with student democratic engagement is something Nikki Hinshaw, assistant director of Student Involvement at WSU Vancouver, emphasizes when advising student government leaders. She reminds them that while some students are unable to legally vote in the Unites States, many deeply care about the issues being discussed as part of this election.

Jose Mejia, the ASWSU director of legislative affairs at WSU Tri-Cities, is one of those students. Mejia is an undocumented student who grew up in the Tri-Cities. While he is unable to cast a vote in this election, he wants to play a role in helping make the university and his hometown better places for all students, including undocumented students.

“I think of it as if we (undocumented students) are in the soccer game, we are not on the field, but we are on the bench witnessing everything,” Mejia said. “We are still part of the game and our outreach efforts during this campaign need to take that into account.”

Partnerships drive success

Recently, the Cougar Pursuit Program and the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) in WSU Athletics teamed-up with the University of Washington for a friendly competition called Rivals United. The goal was to see which school’s athletic department could register the most student-athletes during a two-and-half week span. Even though WSU registered nearly 400 of its student-athletes (95%), UW squeaked-out the win registering 100% of its student-athletes.

“Obviously we didn’t like losing to them,” said Owen Leonard, SAAC president and a pitcher on the baseball team. “But the end goal was to get as many student-athletes registered as we could so we can use our voices to be heard in this election.”

WSU President Kirk Schulz endorsed WSU’s participation in the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, which includes the Pac-12 Voting Challenge. The challenge involves over 700 institutions across the nation that are tasked with developing strategies to increase student voting rates and help students form the habits of active and engaged citizenship.

“At WSU, we aspire for all Cougs to be engaged leaders and their participation in our democracy is foundational to their personal development and strengthening their communities through action,” Schulz said. “We are excited to participate in the Pac-12 Voting Challenge and encourage all students, staff, and faculty to register to vote and vote in the general election,” Schulz said.

The Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service is a partner in the Washington State Debate Coalition, a public service committed to ensuring people have access to those who hold and seek elected office. It is presenting a series of election-related forums for students, faculty and staff in the coming weeks.

Not all engagement activities are virtual. The Pullman, Vancouver, and Tri-Cities campuses have plans to establish in-person voting and registration hubs that adhere to CDC health guidelines. The hub on the Pullman campus, located in the Junior Ballroom of the Compton Union Building, will operate Friday, Oct. 30, Monday, Nov. 2 and on election day, Nov. 3. The hub on the Tri-Cities campus will be open in the library building on those days plus Saturday, Oct. 31. WSU Vancouver’s hub will only be open on election day, 10 a.m.-8 p.m., in Firstenburg Student Commons.

On election day, Calabretta said students will be able to utilize the hubs to register and vote on the same day, something students have never been able to do before.

WSU Pullman, WSU Tri-Cities and WSU Vancouver have ballot drop boxes conveniently located on campus. Visit VoteWA to find the ballot box nearest you.

The creation of the hubs stem from a state law implemented in January requiring campuses to provide college students with better access to registration and voting. WSU junior Alexandra Donnici, ASWSU deputy director of legislative affairs on the Pullman campus, had a front row seat when the bill was introduced to the legislature.

“I was on the Senate floor as a legislative intern while this bill was being debated,” Donnici said. “So, to be here now to help implement the law is super exciting to me.”

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