According to a Tufts University study, 48.3% of college students across the nation cast their vote in the 2016 presidential election. That was an increase of three percentage points from four years earlier. Still, fewer than half were motivated enough to do their civic duty.
With another Election Day upon us, William & Mary’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee is doing its part to improve those numbers. Behind a department-wide initiative, the SAAC helped register all eligible student-athletes to vote in what, for most, will be their first presidential election.
It all happened by a self-imposed target date of Oct. 1.
“It’s extremely important,” said Nyla Pollard ’21, a women’s basketball player and student assistant to SAAC advisor Darryl Blackstock. “So many of the things that happen at the federal and local level affect us directly. It’s important for us to be heard and to wake up and have a say in who’s making those decisions.
“I was really proud of SAAC for having the initiative and working to have everybody registered by that deadline. But I was equally proud of the coaches and the team members. It was a collective effort, and it couldn’t have happened without everyone participating.”
With its own drive already in place, W&M joined a Colonial Athletic Association campaign called CAA Votes.
The Tribe has two members on the conference’s SAAC Voter Registration Subcommittee: football quarterback Ted Hefter and women’s soccer midfielder Mariana Hershner. William & Mary became the first Colonial member to register 100% of its student-athletes.
“We’re developing people to be caring and also a part of the community going forward,” said Hershner ’21. “Getting involved has been something we’ve been passionate about. We’re letting people know they do have a voice in their government.”
This already has been unlike any presidential election in our history. That has made early registration and learning the process even more important.
“This year, especially with the pandemic, voting by mail is going to be especially necessary,” said volleyball player and SAAC member Julia Brown ’21. “It’s nice to see how proactive people have been not only with registering early and voting early but also encouraging others to do the same.
“It is such a simple process, but it’s something that a lot of people haven’t done at this age. It’s really helpful for the student-athlete to have someone point them in the right direction if they don’t know what to do.”
Even before taking on the role of SAAC advisor, Blackstock was working to register everyone on W&M’s football team. All he needed to do was take that approach to a wider audience.
“I kind of steered it, but I’ve got to show a lot of love to the coaches for supporting what we were trying to get done,” he said. “And a shout-out to (assistant coach) Jason Kemp with basketball, because they were already 100-percent registered. They made it easy.
“It was more of a double-check with your status. That’s what I did for anyone who was already registered.”
With so much conflicting information about voting this year, especially by mail, Blackstock set a target date to allow a full month for any issues that might arise.
“I knew we have pretty much two-thirds absentee votes, and I wanted to make sure everybody had enough time if they had to do anything in addition to registering,” Blackstock said. “That’s what my thought process was so they didn’t wait until the last minute. I thought if we could get this done by October 1st, that would be great.”
The student-athletes are not being encouraged to support a specific candidate or party. The only goal is getting them involved in the process.
“Voting is a pillar to what you’re trying to get done regardless of who’s in office,” Blackstock said. “You want to exercise your right to vote, and you start that by registering.”
For Pollard, Hershner and Brown, this is not their first election. But having missed the 2016 presidential vote by a matter of months, there’s plenty of excitement this time.
“There’s a lot of conversation about how important it is to vote regardless of who you’re choosing to vote for,” said Brown, who is from suburban Chicago and mailed her ballot Monday. “Fulfilling that civic duty is something a lot of students are very passionate about.”
Of course, 100 percent registration is one thing. Casting a ballot, either in person or by mail, is a bigger challenge.
“Moving forward, it will be getting people to go to the polls and giving them proper information,” Hershner said. “I definitely think there’s external pressure on (us) to get out and participate in the community.
“It’s definitely been a very large focus on social media these days to make sure that everyone is involved. Our age group is definitely starting to get out and vote more. It’s your duty.”