JumboVote looks to boost students’ voter turnout

Students volunteering for JumboVote man one of the voter registration tables at VoteFest on Sept. 23. (Max Lalanne / The Tufts Daily)

JumboVote 2016, described on its website as “a multifaceted, university-wide initiative to boost political learning, engagement and voting in this year’s presidential election,” has been working to tackle the barriers and questions some Tufts students face when registering or voting in order to increase students’ voter registration and turnout.

While the JumboVote initiative extends to all of Tufts’ departments, schools and campuses, the operation runs out of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life — specifically, from the office of Diane Alexander (LA ’16). Alexander, a former English and political science double major, transitioned quickly from student to staff, taking on the position of JumboVote coordinator in April 2016.

Since then, Alexander has been working with different departments, campuses and politically-oriented student organizations to spread the word about JumboVote 2016, increase registration and provide students with resources about the political process to foster effective political dialogue on campus.

“We’re working with, basically, pretty much all departments … with the [Experimental College], [the Office of Residential Life and Learning] … because we know that it’s important to get the word out in every possible way,” Alexander said. “So if you haven’t heard of JumboVote or heard how you can register to vote [in Massachusetts] by October 19, then you basically have not left your dorm room.”

Ben Kaplan, a senior majoring in political science, is the president of Tufts Democrats, one of the many campus organizations with which JumboVote is collaborating this fall. Along with JumboVote, Tufts Progressive Alliance, Tisch College, Tufts Cooperation and Innovation in Citizenship and WMFO 91.5FM, Tufts Democrats helped organize VoteFest 2016, an event on Sept. 23 that featured live music, free food and voter registration, according to Alexander.

Alexander said that 152 people registered to vote at VoteFest, which she described as “a huge success.”

Kaplan’s fraternity, Pi Rho Omega, also hosted a party that same night with a voter registration table in partnership with JumboVote. These events are a few examples of what Kaplan appreciates about JumboVote’s presence on campus.

“It’s a great way to get registered to vote and have fun doing it,” Kaplan said.

These programs and partnerships aim to improve upon Tufts’ previous voting rates during the 2012 presidential election and the 2014 midterm elections. A separate initiative, the National Study for Learning, Voting and Engagement (NSLVE) run by the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education (IDHE) at Tisch College, tracked the voting rates of Tufts students and students at other higher education institutions in 2012 and 2014. 

IDHE Director Nancy Thomas said that she and her team have collected voting data from 920 campuses, covering 8.5 million college students since the NSLVE began in 2013, as a way to study political engagement and learning in higher education.

According to a report released in November 2015 by the NSLVE, 51.2 percent of Tufts students voted during the 2012 presidential election, compared to an average of 46.9 percent of students from the more than 750 colleges and universities included in the study.

But Thomas believes Tufts’ voting rate could be much higher.

“If education is an indicator of voting, which it is, [shouldn’t] we expect college students to be voting at higher rates?” Thomas asked.

Alexander believes that part of the reason why it can be difficult to get students to the polls has to do with the bureaucratic voter registration and voting process. Not only does Tufts sit between two different cities — Medford and Somerville — but it is also divided into four different voting precincts.

Additionally, the wide range of students’ off-campus addresses potentially adds a fifth precinct, according to Alexander. She said it can be especially difficult for students who must re-register every time they change on- or off-campus addresses, which is typically every year for Tufts students.

“A lot of people would come to the [Meyer] Campus Center, and it was difficult to tell them where to vote,” she said. “And that’s not something we can change because that’s not decided by us.”

Then there are students who vote in other states by absentee ballot. Because deadlines and registration processes vary significantly across states and districts, communicating the necessary information about voting to students has been difficult for Alexander.

Alexander said that every state has a different deadline — sometimes down to the hour of the day — for receiving absentee ballots. She says she has spent hours researching the voter registration deadlines for all 50 states, absentee ballot deadlines for all 50 states, which states have online registration options and any caveats to each state’s voter registration process. She has compiled these results into a digestible Google sheet, which students can find on the JumboVote website.

“There were states where I had to go into the weeds to find [the absentee ballot deadline],” Alexander said. “It didn’t say on the website. You had to go into the [actual] absentee ballot request form.”

To help organize the registration process for students voting in either Massachusetts or their home state, JumboVote has partnered with TurboVote, an online voter registration tool that helps Tufts students register to vote and request absentee ballots and reminds students of deadlines and important dates.

According to Alexander, as of Sept. 22, 764 students had registered to vote through TurboVote. However, she noted that about 100 people have started but not completed their registration through TurboVote.

In 2012, voter registration at Tufts did not necessarily correlate with actual voting, according to Thomas and the NSLVE report. She pointed out that of the estimated Tufts population that was eligible to vote, only 80.8 percent were registered in 2012. Of those registered voters, only 63.4 percent actually voted.

The voting rate for the 2014 midterm elections was significantly lower, with 27.2 percent of registered students voting, representing 18.5 percent of the total number of eligible students.

Thomas said that this discrepancy between registered voters and active voters can be explained by the emphasis on getting people registered over ensuring that they get to the polls on Election Day.

“Students are being mobilized to register more than to vote,” Thomas said. “They don’t have a civic identity as a voter.”

According to Alexander, there may be a different reason why Tufts students might not make it to the polls: Because Massachusetts is a solid blue state (or sometimes because students’ home states are solid blue states), some Tufts students may feel that their votes do not matter.

She encouraged those students to remember that other candidates and issues, such as local or state ballot initiatives, appear on the ballot in addition to the presidential candidates. 

Ballot initiatives come out of petitions for certain statutes or constitutional amendments that have received demonstrated support from a minimum number of registered voters. Alexander cited the Massachusetts Authorization of Additional Charter Schools and Charter School Expansion Initiative, also known as Question 2, as one important ballot initiative that many Tufts students care about and that JumboVote is addressing as another way to get students to the polls. 

According to the Massachusetts Attorney General Office’s website, the approval of this ballot initiative would allow for the creation of 12 new charter schools each year or the expansion of enrollment in existing charter schools by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. 

Alexander added in an email to the Daily that some Tisch Scholars are working with JumboVote to put together a panel of speakers to discuss the charter school initiative.

With only a few weeks until Massachusetts’ voter registration deadline on Oct. 19, and a few more before election day on Nov. 8, Alexander said that she recognizes that getting all eligible student voters to the polls will take more than JumboVote’s efforts to lower voter registration barriers and create discussion and interest around the election.

“Ultimately, we can only directly impact students by providing as many resources as we can and making the whole process more accessible,” Alexander said. “Caring enough about the issues at stake is what will get people out of their doors, and alleviating some of the logistical troubles we face from the way our precincts are laid out is what will get people into the right booths.”