“Are you registered to vote?”
If no one asked you that this fall, odds are you spent too much time in the Reg. Hardly an event on campus, from special-guest conversations to RSO gatherings, was complete without one or two cheerful undergrads in navy tees politely inquiring about attendees’ voter registration status. “Vote” signs sprang up at every street corner, email reminders were distributed en masse, and Reynold’s Club transformed into an early polling location.
All this was thanks to UChi Votes, the largest voting initiative in University of Chicago history. But for all the attention the initiative has garnered in recent months, most people probably do not know how it started, who runs the show, and how successful it has been.
Fall of 2018 marked UChi Votes’ leap into the campus spotlight, but the organization’s story begins a few years earlier, in the wake of the 2016 election cycle.
“After the 2016 election, no matter where on the political spectrum you fell, you realized how important elections were,” said fourth-year Andrew Mamo, one of the chief student architects of UChi Votes, in an interview with the Gate. He saw 2016 as a wakeup call for Americans, especially the younger generation, that democracy is an active process. No one can just sit back and let it happen. Democracy needs to be fought for every step of the way.
On campus, The IOP felt it had missed an opportunity to engage UChicago’s student body in the national political scene, and for good reason. In one of the most heated presidential races in modern American politics, the UChicago community mustered around a 50 percent turnout rate in 2016. While certainly not a bad rate, it placed UChicago about on par with the typical American college or university, per data from Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy and Higher Education. In 2014—the most recent midterm cycle for which Tufts provides data—UChicago’s turnout rate was a similarly average 19 percent, with registration at 58 percent.
"There’s no reason UChicago shouldn't be leading its peers and also just leading the nation in really smart, young students who are actually using their right to vote,” Mamo said.
The IOP had the same sentiment. Towards the end of the last school year, thoughts of a “get out the vote” initiative began to swirl around the institute. Conversations amongst the IOP student advisory board members quickly developed into a plan for action. Over the summer, full-time IOP staffers—looking to learn from their inaction in 2016—took the student advisory board’s suggestions and turned them into the framework for UChi Votes. They built the website, set up UChicago’s TurboVote account, and outlined some preliminary strategies for the coming quarter. When IOP staffers had finished drafting this initial infrastructure, they turned over the reins to students.
About thirty undergraduates (and a few graduate students) from a broad array of campus backgrounds agreed to lead the initiative. Beginning with phone calls in August and progressing into weekly campus meetings during the school year, these students collaborated on exactly what they would do come fall.
Fortunately, they had plenty of successful collegiate voting initiatives to serve as inspiration. From Harvard to USC, universities nationwide have developed strong programs committed to voting in recent years. Almost all take advantage of TurboVote due to its ease of use and appeal to young voters. Some have turned voting into a full-fledged celebration; this fall, USC’s student government held a “Votechella” festival complete with both music and registration agents. The weekend before classes began, UChi Votes sent three representatives to Harvard to speak with their Institute of Politics and pick up some ideas. One of the goals they returned with was to ensure UChi Votes made a concerted effort to include multicultural groups in its circle.
Layla Al, a current fourth-year and programming intern for civic engagement at the IOP, spearheaded this push. "My role is to make sure people of color are heard throughout this initiative. I think it's something that is lacking generally with a lot of political initiatives and more specifically within the IOP," she explained to the Gate. She helps ensure that UChi Votes is not just about encouraging people to vote, but also involves understanding the reasons why some people are not voting. Often, it is because they believe no one is listening to their voices. Thus, she helps to address those issues and to challenge the narrative that people who do not vote are lazy, crazy, or both.
To achieve this goal, UChi Votes works closely with many of the multicultural organizations on campus, including the Organization of Black Students, Organization of Latin American Students, Movimiento Estudiantial Chicanx de Aztlán, and some of the multicultural fraternities and sororities on campus. Leading up to the midterms, UChi Votes voter ambassadors attended any events those organizations held to get members registered, shared information about upcoming elections, and heard about voting from the perspective of people of color.
An open-arm policy is also essential for non-partisanship. Avoiding political bias is crucial to the integrity of UChi Votes, but doing so in such divisive times is especially challenging. Inviting everyone to the table is the first step in the process. Both UC Dems and College Republicans are part of UChi Votes’ coalition, along with UChicago Democratic Socialists. UChi Votes welcomes organizations from across the political spectrum, and when everyone has input in managing the initiative, no one feels cheated or discriminated against.
Staying on-message is also key. UChi Votes does not tell people who to vote for or in which races to vote, it just encourages everyone, especially young people, to get out there and actually do it. As Andrew Mamo explained, "you have this incredible right in the course of human history, and it would be a shame if you don't use it."
Jake Gosselin, a fourth-year involved with UChi Votes’ early voting initiatives, reiterated both the difficulties and the importance of maintaining non-partisanship in UChi Votes. "Trying to keep my personal political views in check . . . has always been important to me because some of [UChi Votes's] power comes from aspiring to goals that hopefully transcend party lines," he told the Gate in an interview. "You can't give either side any sense of approval or sense of 'we're doing it for you' because we're not doing this for a party … we're doing it because regardless of what your party allegiance is, you should care that young people believe in the democratic process."
But did UChi Votes’s enormous effort translate into success? Did more people show up to vote on election day? For now, the answer seems to be yes.
UChi Votes set goals of 70 percent voter registration and 40 percent turnout, and while official turnout data will not be available until February, the registration rates are more than encouraging.
From September 1st to October 3, 3,399 UChicago undergraduates registered to vote through TurboVote. Without even accounting for students registered through other means, this number represented over half the undergraduate population and placed UChicago well above its peer institutions—in fact, on a percentage basis, almost twice as many UChicago students had registered than at the next best school.
The above figure illustrates data collected through TurboVote from September 1st through October 3rd.
By election day, a full 4,685 UChicago undergrads had registered through TurboVote, representing just under 75 percent of the student body. With regards to registration, UChi Votes met and exceeded expectations.
All that remains, of course, is the turnout data. Those numbers will best determine how much measurable success UChi Votes attained. But at the moment, hopes are high.
Looking to the future, UChi Votes is focused on the February municipal and mayoral elections. The initiative wants to build off the energy it created for the midterms and increase turnout rates in local elections as well. It is relatively easy to get students to care about high-profile federal elections, so undergraduate turnout for these municipal elections will show how much of the work UChi Votes put into the midterms turned into consistent voting practices. To help raise turnout rates, UChi Votes is working closely with the Chicago Board of Elections to ensure UChicago gets an on-campus polling location for the next round of city and state elections. Ultimately, Gosselin hopes these efforts get students "to start caring more about city races and exerting their political will in their own neighborhood in a positive way."
As its future goals suggest, UChi Votes speaks to more than just election-day engagement. It enforces the IOP’s central mission to reject political cynicism and non-action.
It is this greater sentiment that appealed to Gosselin. The son of two D.C. political reporters, he developed a deep-seated suspicion of American politics from an early age. All that changed, however, when he came to Chicago: "The politics that are practiced here seemed so genuine in a way I hadn't experienced before,” he told the Gate. “It was people in communities wanting to make those communities better. That inspired in me a passion for that kind of work and restored my faith in the notion that avenues like voting can be a way of exerting political will to make the world better," he said.
Beyond the registration initiatives, the early voting, and the turnout numbers, UChi Votes is about people. It’s about understanding their grievances and helping them believe they can address those issues politically. In the words of Gosselin, it’s about getting people to trust “that they can make this country kinder to them and kinder to the people they love.”
The image featured in this article is domain of the University of Chicago Institute of Politics. Credit to Zane Maxwell. The original image can be found here.
Chase Gardner is a second-year Environmental and Urban Studies major and Statistics minor. He has interned at ActionStreamer, a tech startup in Cincinnati, and CinemaSol, a documentary film production company. On campus, Chase runs for the Varsity Cross Country and Track teams. In free moments, he enjoys impromptu guitar/synth jam-sessions and watching existentially angsty movies.