With the 2020 election steadily approaching, groups across campus are kicking voter outreach into high gear.
Andrew Lardie, associate director for service and leadership at the Joseph McKeen Center for the Common Good, has taken a central role in promoting voter engagement through Bowdoin Votes, a nonpartisan voting initiative run through the McKeen Center. Although Bowdoin Votes has been operating on campus for several years, the current semester’s unique circumstances and the importance of the upcoming election have animated their efforts.
“Compared to other years, there’s definitely more energy and more urgency around the success of Bowdoin Votes,” said Lardie in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “Everybody understands that COVID[-19] has really complicated the possibilities for students.”
Many of the events that Bowdoin Votes has done in the past, such as voter registration tabling in highly trafficked areas of campus, are impossible this fall.
“One of my big concerns has been, what do we need to do to provide the same level of support and keep the error rate down even though we can’t look at people’s materials in person?” Lardie said. “That has involved a few prongs of effort.”
Some of these efforts are new, including “Ask Every Student,” a formalized consultation process that allows Bowdoin Votes to provide students with the individual voter registration support they need. Bowdoin Votes has also delivered mailers to on-campus students with registration information and continued to organize online events to promote engagement.
Bowdoin Votes also plans to recruit student “voting captains” as volunteers to personalize outreach. These volunteers are coordinated by student employees trained in voter registration support.
Aoguzi Muhameiti ’23 is an election engagement fellow for Bowdoin Votes. Following Bowdoin Votes’ all-day Zoom call on National Voter Registration Day on Tuesday, Muhameiti emphasized the challenge of conducting voter outreach work virtually.
“[Usually] voter registration tabling is, if you’re walking to the dining hall and you see us [and say], ‘Oh, let’s just stop by,’” explained Muhameiti in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “With the Zoom [call] you have to actively seek it out.”
Muhameiti further explained that it is easy for people to become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information on voting that they are exposed to online.
“Confusion is definitely the biggest barrier,” Muhameiti said. “People on social media, they’re going to see like 20 different infographics about voting on a given day.”
Combating information overload on voting is a focus for several student-led campus groups also engaging in voter engagement work. In the hopes of refining the information they present, members of these groups—including Reproductive Justice Coalition (RJC), Swing Left and Sunrise Bowdoin—have formed a coalition to coordinate outreach.
“I feel like oftentimes, this type of work can be really siloed between many different groups, and I think we’ve really coordinated,” explained Leif Maynard ’23, a member of Sunrise Bowdoin, in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “I think that it just streamlines the information that’s coming to people, and I also think that we’re trying not to step on each others’ toes—we have a calendar that we all put our events into so that hopefully we don’t overlap.”
Samantha Schwimmer ’21, a leader of RJC, also hopes that collaborating in this way will help extend the work’s reach.
“I think one of my biggest fears is that we’re only reaching an insular circle of people who are engaged within the work already,” Schwimmer said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “I think we’re starting to think now, ‘OK, how can we reach the people who aren’t in our immediate circles?’”
Reaching as many people as possible with the necessary information is crucial to ensuring that voters follow through with submitting their ballots when the time comes.
“We’ve been trying to get really accurate information, spreading it far and wide and just making things easy for people,” Maynard said. “Voter suppression is all about just making things difficult.”
Schwimmer is also on guard against voter suppression, as several students have already encountered difficulties registering to vote in Brunswick.
“Eligibility is complicated in itself, voting is complicated,” Schwimmer said. “There are a lot of caveats out there, but we want every Bowdoin student who is eligible to vote to be able to vote.”
In an email to the student body on Monday, Associate Registrar Julie Grossi provided students with a document that would serve as the proof of residence needed to register to vote in Brunswick. She also clarified a point from President Clayton Rose’s September 17 email to the student body on voter engagement.
“Unfortunately, the information provided to President Rose for his letter was not completely accurate, and we need to clarify one aspect of the regulations,” Grossi wrote. “If you have already registered to vote in Maine, you only need to request an absentee ballot with your current address and can disregard this attachment.”
In his email, Rose affirmed his commitment to promoting student voting and provided information for students planning to register to vote in Brunswick. However, Rose clarified that the College does not endorse voting in a particular place.
“To be clear, Bowdoin does not encourage or discourage a voter from registering in any particular municipality,” Rose wrote. “College students who are U.S. citizens are entitled to vote either from their ‘permanent’ home address, or from where they have established a residence to attend school.”
The College has also emphasized that voter outreach must remain strictly nonpartisan. In an email to the student body on Tuesday, Director of Student Activities Nate Hintze clarified the College’s policy on political activity in student groups.
“Please note that nothing in this policy is intended to restrict the freedom of speech or political activity of any individual, and College employees and students are entitled to freely participate in the election process,” Hintze wrote. “But there are a few limitations as to what we can do on campus or from off campus using College resources.”
As a result, student political groups must walk a careful line as they undertake voter engagement work.
“It is a weird separation of church and state thing that we’ve got going on,” said Maddie Hikida ’22, a member of Sunrise Bowdoin, in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “If we’re putting out information on getting out the vote and just strictly like, how do you vote, we do make sure we keep it super nonpartisan, and then it’s in our separate work where we’re like, ‘we are a partisan group.’”
Despite these statements, many voting outreach groups still feel that the administration has been largely supportive of their efforts so far.
“I’ve been grateful that [the administration has] expressed support for what we’re doing by moving really swiftly when they’re juggling…a ton of other competing responsibilities,” Lardie said.
Regardless of the emphasis they are currently placing on voter outreach, student groups explain that their work leading up to the election definitely doesn’t stop with voting.
“I don’t think that people should view voting as the end-all be-all of politics, because it’s not,” Hikida said. “But I do think that voting is a really good first step to getting involved in your community.”