Tisch College Associate Director of Student Programs Sherri Sklarwitz (left) and Communications Manager Jennifer McAndrew (right) helped create Jumbo Votes 2016, an umbrella organization on campus to increase voter registration. Alex Knapp / The Tufts Daily

Jumbo Votes works to reform local voting system, bring elephantine numbers to the polls

In the midst of primary election season, the newly renamed Tisch College of Civic Life (Tisch College), formerly Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, and a number of on-campus political groups such as Cooperation and Innovation in Citizenship (CIVIC), Tufts Democrats, Tufts Republicans, Tufts Votes and the Tufts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have combined their efforts to develop a project called Jumbo Votes 2016.

The primary goals of Jumbo Votes, a university-wide initiative spearheaded by Tisch College in coalition with the Office of the Provost, are to enfranchise Tufts students, facilitate political learning during the election season and work with Tufts’ host communities to improve some of the challenges students face that impede their abilities to exercise their right to vote, according to Jen McAndrew, the communications manager at Tisch College.

McAndrew described the sweeping reach of the initiative, detailing that Jumbo Votes 2016 representatives are in every Tufts school and major administrative department and have a strong presence among the student body. She said that to advance their efforts, Tisch College recently hired a voting coordinator, current senior Diane Alexander, to help encourage and reinforce the efforts of student-run voting initiatives leading up to the election, like those of CIVIC.

“By working with Votes through Tisch College, CIVIC is trying to help the campus-wide effort to not only make sure that people register, but also that they verify their registration before election day in order to minimize [the number of] students who are caught in the trap of having improper registration,” CIVIC Co-Leader Ben Hoffman said.

Hoffman, a senior, pointed to various factors at play on campus that impede student voting. In particular, he mentioned that the transitory nature of student residences is a huge barrier.

“Due to the fact that voting is tied to your residence and students tend to change [where they live] every year they are at Tufts, [it’s] very difficult for students to…simply remember what address they are even registered at and…to keep the voting rolls organized and not have people listed who cannot answer municipal censuses, which Tufts students never even receive in their dorms,” Hoffman said.

McAndrew echoed many of Hoffman’s sentiments but also listed transportation, identification and knowledge of where to vote as issues that often confront students who are trying to vote for the first time.

Moreover, she pointed to confusion centered around whether or not students are registered on the final voter lists.

“[This issue typically arises] either because [students who] were removed from the lists are told that they had registered too close to the deadline, which is frankly confusing,” McAndrew said. “Students are not offered a provisional ballot when they are entitled to one, but may not know it, or are refused a provisional ballot altogether.”

Hoffman explained that this practice of preventing students from acquiring provisional ballots is flagrantly illegal, although he attributed this challenge primarily to the city of Medford. He further elaborated on the barriers posed by a census-based voting system and how they directly impact students because of changing addresses, as well as on the required survey documents not reaching students who live in the dormitory buildings, which sometimes results in their automatic removal from voting rolls.

Senior Austin Kane, co-leader of CIVIC, said that disconnected information as well as faults on the part of volunteer poll workers have posed hurdles to advancing the student-voting effort. 

People at Gantcher, volunteers, were turning Tufts students away before 7 p.m., which is against the law,” Kane said. “This is also a recurring problem for Tufts students voting at Gantcher, as for whatever reason staff there have not been cooperative in the past. Then there’s just a general problem of ignorance about the voting process.”

A unique situation arises from Tufts’ geographic location: since the main campus sits between Medford and Somerville, constituents in this area are spread among four separate voting precincts.

McAndrews sees this as the perfect situation to catalyze community and university cooperation to help students maintain influence in local policy matters and in particular, the voting process.

“This will almost certainly be a longer-term conversation with the host communities, but it is a worthwhile one, in my view.” McAndrew said. “But in the interim, what we must do is ensure that all students know which precinct they reside in, where the polling place is, how to get there and access to help to get there. That is something that we are doing — and must continue to do — working directly with students through this initiative,”

Hoffman speculated that these technical barriers might have more sordid roots, positing that the districts were drawn as such to temper the strength of the Tufts vote.

“The cynic in me genuinely believes this is to carve up the Tufts vote into small fractions … If all of Tufts were in one precinct it would by and large guarantee Tufts having a large say over certain [political] races that would have the entirety of Tufts within their constituency,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman clarified that the redrawing of districts would likely take place at the city or town level and explained that changes would most likely come to fruition as a result of doggedly lobbying politicians at the municipal level.

In the meantime, according to Kane, CIVIC has been using other means to generate awareness about the election and facilitate student voting.

“The group is very much focused on addressing and mitigating those problems [that keep students from voting].” Kane said. “For example, prior to Super Tuesday this year, we had a big registration rush for student voters for about a week at locations in Carm, Dewick and the Campus Center and registered several hundred students on top of those we asked who were already registered, here or elsewhere. On the day of, Jumbo Votes ran shuttles from the Campus Center to each of the polling centers. It really was quite successful,”

Ostensibly, larger-scale changes like redistricting would be long-term projects to undertake, but in the meantime, Jumbo Votes has looked to other methods that target students more directly to enfranchise students and facilitate voting.

“We have convened student meetings on all Tufts campuses…[and] will have funding available for student groups to convene issue forums or other events on campus this fall related to the election [and we]…also have partnered with TurboVote, a non-partisan, non-profit organization to help students register to vote and request absentee ballots,” McAndrew said.

She also highlighted Tisch College’s effort to have student groups make voter registration material available at their primary events and key locations on campus, as well as recently publishing a release of relevant voting information, which includes a detailed list of where students’ polling locations are, based on their dorms.

For Hoffman, the main takeaway from this primary season is that students should know what their voting rights are and become increasingly aware of these barriers to student voting in order to maneuver them in the effective way.

“What we can do is make sure that all students are always registered and verified before elections and empower students to know their right to a provisional ballot no matter what,” Hoffman said.

And while McAndrew expressed similar suggestions for traversing the technical impediments to voting, she emphasized the importance of remembering that there is a strong motivational piece to the equation as well.

“It’s not just about registering students, reducing barriers with cities and towns and ensuring that students know where, when and how to vote — although all that is critical,” McAndrew said. “It also means encouraging and supporting students in their own efforts to engage with campaigns and to bring issues and conversations on policy and political matters they care about to campus.”

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