With the Michigan primary coming up March 10, University of Michigan administrative initiatives and student groups are spearheading efforts to mobilize student voters and increase turnout. 

One of the larger-scale initiatives is the Big Ten Voting Challenge, a nonpartisan coalition among the Big Ten Conference schools. The challenge was launched at the University in 2017 through the Edward Ginsberg Center and recorded an average 24 percent increase in the turnout rate among Big Ten schools from the 2014 to 2018 midterms. The University showed a 27 percent increase, nearly tripling voter turnout. 

According to Erin Byrnes, Lead of Democratic Engagement at the Ginsberg Center, this growth can be attributed to a combination of a strong digital and physical presence on campus. The challenge also works with nonpartisan student group Turn up Turnout to execute voter registration events, use social media for outreach and be physically present at the polls on voting day. 

“In 2018, we hosted parties at the polls on Central and North Campus, and that was an opportunity for students to really engage with us, get some food, get some swag, have conversation and get some information around what they would be voting on if they weren’t yet fully informed to that end,” Byrnes said. 

“This year, for the presidential primary on March 10, with changes in our state voting laws with Proposal 3, we’ll be able to not only give student information on who and what will be on the ballot — of course in a way that’s non-partisan — but we’ll also be able to direct them to the city clerk’s office if they haven’t yet registered because they will be able to register in person up to and on the day that they’ll be voting.”

Byrnes highlighted the the support from President Mark Schlissel’s office, which streamlines her team’s work through the Office of New Student Programs. 

“It’s opened a lot of doors for us, which has been wonderful, so I think that’s an important piece of our reach,” Byrnes said. “It’s really empowered and enabled us to work directly with the Office of New Student Programs, talking with new and transfer students in the summer months as they’re first coming in the campus, really focusing on kind of weaving voting and broader democratic engagement to the student experience from day one.” 

Organizations such as WeListen, a student-run group that brings together voices from various political backgrounds on campus, have promoted discussion on a wide variety of topics and political engagement to encourage informed voting. 

According to LSA junior Caroline Martin, WeListen’s vice president of outreach, the organization tries to facilitate real conversations in a politically divided environment. Martin said a part of this process is educating students on political issues and emphasizing the importance of voting as a civic duty. 

“No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, voting is a privilege, a right, civic duty, fundamental pillar of democracy,” Martin said. “WeListen is adamant to provide neutral resources that allow you to make actionable, informed decisions.”

At the Law School, Michigan Voting Project, a student-led organization previously known as the Michigan Election Law Project, brings together law students studying voting law and professors to engage the student body. 

Casey Wright, Law School student and Voter Registration Chair, said the group used to be focused solely on bringing law students opportunities to learn about voting law, but has evolved to include more groundwork and encourage volunteer opportunities and organizing at the polls. 

“Some people come into this with a lot of personal knowledge and background about election law, and what current voting rights efforts look like across the country,” Wright said. “Some people, like me, are just interested in voting rights and are passionate about it and want to learn about it. I don’t come from any formal voting-related background, but it’s really cool to see what other people are doing, and the professors from the Law School are really experts in this field.”

Wright said while law students usually have already had experience with voting, MVP helps students who might want to switch their registration to Michigan or help them get access to absentee ballots. 

“We want to make sure that people know that they can switch their registration to Michigan if they want to, so that’s been a big priority for us especially since Michigan is a swing state and its very important in national elections,” Wright said. “There are a lot of very important local ballot initiatives that affect students and graduate students, so we want to make sure that people know that they can register to vote in Michigan while they’re here at school.”

Wright said MVP has been facilitating voter registration at the Law School and making sure people know when the election will take place in preparation for the primary. Looking ahead to the general election, Wright said they are working with the Office of Student Life to help students avoid having to choose between classes and voting. 

“Missing class for law students can be especially challenging,” Wright said. “We’re working with our Office of Student Life to see what sorts of options we have in terms of getting our classes recorded and just making sure that even if people have a really packed class schedule on Tuesdays, that they will not have to sacrifice their ability to get to the poll before it closes.”

LSA freshman Nick Schuler, College Republicans freshman chair, said registration efforts have begun within the organization. He noted an event the group held last week, during which a representative from the Trump Victory Organization came to help members get registered. The critical work, however, will begin next year in preparation for the general election, he said. 

“Next year we’re certainly going to be ramping up our voter registration and get out the voter efforts,” Schuler said. “We’re doing that through the statewide Republican National Committee — they help us out a lot — and as well the statewide campus Republicans. We’re just looking to get Republicans registered, especially in a state like Michigan.”

Schuler said he believes student Republican turnout will be even greater than in 2016 because of the political environment surrounding impeachment.

“I think that among Republicans the turn out is going to be higher due to impeachment and Republicans know that it was an unfair, purely partisan process,” he said. “Republicans are going to be fired up, and they’re going to want to send a message to Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats that what they did was wrong.”

LSA student Rose Sickrey has just registered to vote in Ann Arbor and plans to cast her ballot for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

“I’m voting for him because of his feminist stances, universal health care and taxing the ultra-wealthy as proportionately as us normal people are taxed. The fact that I paid more in federal taxes last year than Amazon is gross,” Sickery said. “I will be voting for Bernie Sanders because the U.S., even if kicking and screaming, needs to be dragged into the 21st century.”

Reporter Katherina Sourine can be reached at ksourine@umich.edu.


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