By Pamela Fourtounis
BU News Service
Previously published in the Cambridge Chronicle
CAMBRIDGE — In hopes of crushing the pattern of dismal youth turnout this election cycle, Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and student volunteers launched a non-partisan initiative called the Harvard Votes Challenge to encourage political participation across the university.
The goal? Get 90 percent of eligible Harvard students registered to vote before the Oct. 17 deadline so they can participate in the midterm elections.
Organized by the Institute of Politics and the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Kennedy School, the Harvard Votes Challenge seeks to address the hurdles students face that deter them from voting by sponsoring voter registration drives and public dialogue-type events on the issue of voting this fall. Events range from film screenings to panel discussions to traditional registration drives with added perks like a petting zoo.
At one of these events, Harvard freshman Jahnavi Rao worked a registration table. The Oct. 9 event advertised the opportunity to both pet baby goats and pledge to vote.
Rao said millennials and Generation Z are set to become a larger voting population than baby boomers and therefore need to use their voice.
“We complain about our interests not being represented in politics,” Rao said. “The only reason it isn’t is because we don’t vote.”
Only 1 in 5 student voters registered
“Our hope is that this is just the start of a permanent infrastructure at Harvard dedicated to helping students vote,” said junior and Harvard Votes Challenge co-founder, Teddy Landis.
In 2014, the last midterm elections, Harvard’s voter participation rate among the eligible enrolled student population was 23.6 percent, according to a report conducted by the Tufts University Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service.
National rates are also low. Only 17.1 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the 2014 midterms as compared with 41.9 percent of the total population, according to data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The creators of the challenge believe they’ve identified causes for low student turnout. These include unfamiliarity with the area and polling locations, states refusing to accept student IDs, or mandating a local utility bill as proof of residence in order to vote, and the added step of requesting an absentee ballot.
At Harvard, roughly 22,600 students are eligible to register to vote in this election, Landis said. A significant number hail from the swing states of Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, however the vast majority of students are from Massachusetts, New York and California.
How the drive works
Archon Fung, Winthrop Laflin McCormack professor of Citizenship and Self-Government, is one of the faculty sponsors of the challenge at the Kennedy School. He cited a similar effort at University of Michigan as one of his inspirations for the Harvard Votes Challenge.
“The heavy lifting is being done by student organizers who are organizing their peers and collecting all the data and figuring out strategies for getting more people to vote,” Fung said.
The 90 percent participation goal may seem daunting but as of Oct. 12 the Kennedy School participation rate is 89 percent.
The campaign calculates participation based on the number of people who sign up through TurboVote, an online voter registration portal, which funnels those who’ve signed up directly to their respective state’s voter registration page and provides information about voting deadlines and polling locations. A real-time indicator for the number of people participating in the challenge is accessible on the HVC website.
Landis and Harvard student, Derek Paulhus, co-founded the project. Landis runs the undergraduate side of the initiative, which includes overseeing an undergraduate team working with student groups, professors, dormitories, and undergraduate spaces so students can register to vote, request and submit their ballots and pledge to vote.
Paulhus is more involved with the graduate students, working with coalition leaders from all of Harvard’s degree-granting schools to run their events, and organizing undergraduate student groups to integrate HVC into their own programming.
“Around the country we’ve seen a resurgence of youth political activity and that’s no different here at Harvard,” Landis said. “People are really excited about this upcoming election and they’re excited to either vote again or vote for the first time.”