StanfordVotes and the 2020 election

Opinion by Kyla Figueroa
Nov. 1, 2020, 10:37 p.m.

‘Tis the season of elections, from the repetitive proposition commercials to the numerous texts and emails from candidates and volunteers. The 2020 election is undoubtedly ready for the history books as one of the most important elections of our time. But for everyone living in the midst of it all, how do we navigate the information and policies to vote? An organization at Stanford is working to help students access relevant knowledge and become more informed voters, StanfordVotes. I spoke with Sean Casey ’23, a co-director of StanfordVotes, to learn more about their work and how students can use their resources to vote.

StanfordVotes is a non-partisan, student-led voting organization that is housed within Stanford in Government in the civic engagement branch. The organization was founded in 2018 by the current chair of Stanford in Government, Antonia Hellman ’21. Members aim to promote civic engagement in the student body and improve Stanford’s abysmal student participation in past elections. According to the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement at Tufts University, only 16.9% of Stanford students engaged in the midterm elections in 2014. This rate more than doubled in 2018 with 42.7% of eligible students voting. Though this increase cannot be conclusively attributed to the group, StanfordVotes did figure prominently in 2018 election efforts on campus.

However, this participation rate is lower among young people, specifically across peer institutions. During the 2018 election, most institutions saw a wave. For example, Harvard’s 2018 midterms voting rate was 48.6%, compared to 22.4% in 2014. Casey concluded that this was stereotypical for Stanford culture, where students are typically focused on “[technology], disruption, and the private sector, and less on public service, government, and politics. But [StanfordVotes] is working hard to change that.” In fact, Stanford’s increase in student turnout in 2018, among other NSLVE institutions, was much larger: While the average increase in student turnout was 98%, Stanford saw a whopping 152% increase. This increase hints at a larger trend of rising student turnout at Stanford, with the organization as a possible resource to supporting it.

Normally, to register students, StanfordVotes would table at White Plaza, hold dorm activities and a “Party at the Post Office” event. However, these interactive in-person activities cannot occur due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so StanfordVotes has had to change their approach to registration drives and encouraging students to vote. 

Adapting to the virtual setting has nevertheless provided some benefits to StanfordVotes. Casey said that methods of outreach are now mainly through institutional engagement and digital outreach; these methods have enabled StanfordVotes to reach more people more efficiently, narrow its focus and strengthen its initiatives. 

For instance, direct connection with the university has allowed for change throughout the institution for this election. StanfordVotes, along with the Undergraduate Senate, helped implement a Civic Engagement Enrollment hold where incoming frosh are required to register to vote before enrolling in classes. Casey credits Stanford’s increase in student registration to this policy, with the university being the most registered college in the nation, in 2019 and 2020, on the voting platform TurboVote. StanfordVotes’ advocacy also contributed to the Faculty Senate passing guidance on making this election day a day-off. This would mean some students would have the day off or relaxed classes. Casey explained that StanfordVotes introduced the initiative to change the academic calendar and make election days complete holidays. The University will make a decision on this in the near future. “I am really excited for that,” he said.

The other pathway for engagement — digital outreach — makes voter registration and engagement more efficient, Casey told me. “We didn’t have an Instagram [account before the pandemic], so we made [one] … we [also] made a new website.” Their new website is a trove of resources, including links to learn about voting, candidates, propositions and ballot proposals.  For students who want to get more involved directly, there is information about phone-banking opportunities, volunteering and ways to become a poll worker on the website as well. Casey also highlighted TurboVote, which provides reminders about the voter registration due date, when and where absentee ballots are due and locations of polling places. All resources are non-partisan, creating an objective guide for research.

According to Casey, digital outreach is also about “meeting people where they are.” In the past few weeks, the organization has provided some social media graphics, including a voter plan designed for an Instagram Story. Students can outline their plan, post it to social media and tag three friends. Since the interview, StanfordVotes has also created Zoom backgrounds for classes. Casey and his team want to engage “students however we can [by] getting personal touches in that the institutional [measures] do not have.” These graphics allow StanfordVotes to get the word out in a more creative way, and, in turn, students can spread a positive message between each other. 

With this engagement, there has been a change in Stanford’s voting culture. Statistically, Casey has witnessed the change in voting registration at Stanford in the past year and a half. Comparing the numbers of students who voted in 2014 to 2018, there has clearly been “a wave of support and realization of the role that civic engagement plays in all of our lives.” At the previous midterm election, most institutions saw some increase in student participation. But Stanford’s participation increase with respect to other peer institutions makes it clear that this isn’t only a product of increasing national engagement, something unique is happening at Stanford. And StanfordVotes is a coinciding force that contributes to this unique growth. 

Anecdotally, Casey has witnessed more political awareness and investment among his friends, family and peers. “It can be difficult to form these communities online,” Casey continued, “but to some extent, the newfound motivation to be civically engaged has done some of the heavy lifting in forming these communities.” From these experiences, Casey expects an increased voter turnout for students at Stanford.

While StanfordVotes has seen great success overall, there are still challenges that many face when trying to vote. Just last month, students living in Escondido Village Graduate Residences reported not being able to register to vote under the building’s address. There have also been problems with mail at EVGR, calling into question the ability for students on campus to vote through an absentee ballot. I asked Casey about how the organization is addressing these issues and helping students access the vote. He explained that after conversations with the administration, Stanford has contacted the county to fix the situation. Calling the internet platform an “equalizer,” he plans on using StanfordVotes’ pathways to ensure students can access resources.

To conclude, I asked Casey why it’s important for young people to vote. He answered that “voting is the most direct way for young people to have control over the direction of their country.” If an individual disagrees with policy or position and wants change, voting enables change. Voting is an instrumental part of the politics of our country, and StanfordVotes hopes to show that all of our votes “exercise influence over democracy.” 

Although StanfordVotes is not the ultimate cause of increased student electoral participation, it has played a tremendous role in this aspect through the pathways that Casey described. With its online presence and institutional initiatives, the organization is a beneficial and supportive backbone for Stanford students. The emergence of a more politically active university is necessary for the coming years, and StanfordVotes, along with other organizations, will help in this development. Motivating students to vote will create a foundation, leading to more awareness of our political climate and broader forms of community engagement. As students, we can create institutional change through this growth, both with the vote and through continuous advocacy beyond the election.

Contact Kyla Figueroa at kfig5 ‘at’ 

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Kyla Figueroa ‘24 is the former Vol. 260–262 Managing Editor for The Grind, the 263 Screen DE for Arts & Life, and a staff writer for News. Throw pitches and questions her way — kfigueroa ‘at’

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