‘It’s cool to be civically engaged’: William & Mary designated as a Voter Friendly Campus
Because of efforts from the student-driven William & Mary Voter Engagement Action Committee, the university joins a cohort of national schools designated as “Voter Friendly Campuses” through 2022.
The Voter Engagement Action Committee (VEAC), led by Dana Poland ’22, earned this designation after creating a plan to stimulate voter participation among the student body and completing a final report showcasing the plan’s implementation and success. Barriers created by COVID-19 pandemic inspired new ways to creatively encourage students to use their voice in local and national elections.
This designation as a Voter Friendly Campus comes from a partnership with the Campus Vote Project, a non-partisan organization committed to promote voter engagement on college campuses around the United States.
Behind the success of the committee are students and staff dedicated to turning out the student vote. Dana Poland, student director of the Voter Engagement Action Committee, and Rich Thompson, associate director of the Office of Community Engagement, began building this coalition in summer of 2020 after noting the absence of a centralized voting effort on campus. Poland and Thompson hoped to bring together individual efforts by smaller organizations.
“The main goal we set out to do was focus it together and really have a vision as a campus,” said Poland.
Even with the challenges of the ongoing pandemic, the VEAC continues to work toward its mission despite the additional hurdle of being a new organization.
“Not only did William & Mary have the barrier of the pandemic, but they were also working with the fact that it was a new coalition. Starting a coalition in the middle of a pandemic — the same as opening a business in the middle of a pandemic — is incredibly hard,” said Madeline Doane, the Virginia state coordinator for the Campus Vote Project.
The committee’s primary objective is to educate and inspire students to register to vote and then carry through on Election Day, early voting or absentee ballots. Not only does Poland want students to vote, but she also hopes to “inspire people to vote and educate them on the issues that will then in turn inspire them to vote.”
Additionally, the VEAC created a website for William & Mary, providing a straightforward way for students to find answers to questions such as “How do I register to vote?” and “How do I cast my vote?” Online events also helped improve student accessibility like the Power of One webinar that showcased the importance that one single vote can make the outcome of an election.
Creating a voter friendly campus environment meant constructing an atmosphere that fosters and values voter education, participation and civic engagement. Beginning with its introduction to campus through freshman and transfer orientation, the VEAC ensures new students are welcomed to campus with resources on voter registration, according to Doane.
As part of its efforts, the VEAC aims to include students from all backgrounds in its programming through peer-based initiatives. Poland and the rest of the VEAC developed creative ways to engage students such as Outvote Couch Parties, which are hour-long, remote text-banks for students to message their peers and encourage them to register and make a plan to vote. The committee also teamed up with W&M Athletics through the help of the Men’s Basketball Assistant Coach Jason Kemp, who serves as a liaison between the VEAC and student athletes.
Central to the VEAC are connections fostered with the members of the greater Williamsburg area. Included in the VEAC are partners such as W&M First Gentleman Bruce Jacobson, Williamsburg City Councilman Caleb Rogers ‘20 and John McGlennon, a professor of public policy and government as well as a member of the James City County Board of Supervisors. Such partnerships expand the reach of the VEAC and show a united effort with members of the Williamsburg community to encourage student voting. Additionally, the VEAC has worked with the William & Mary Student Assembly in an effort that gave students the day off on Election Day to ensure they had time to cast their ballot.
As the committee begins preparations for the 2021 gubernatorial election, the VEAC hopes continuing to “demystify elections for the William & Mary community” as its final report explains.
“Students don't really think of themselves as having a lot of power just because we're young and people don't really like to hear what young people think,” said Poland, explaining her passion for increased voter turnout among her peers. “At the end of the day, we have as much power as any other voting bloc, so I think it's especially important for us to get organized and actually push what we believe in.”