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College voting advocates have found a new target: athletes

October 30, 2020

Historically, voter turnout among college students and young adults has been lower than for most other age brackets. To combat this trend, the College is working to increase engagement across the community through the new initiative NESCAC Votes. As part of the NESCAC Votes initiative, Bowdoin athletes are making new commitments to vote this election season, which has been essential to the program’s success.

In the past six years, students across the country have become increasingly involved in voting and civic engagement. Between the 2014 and 2018 midterm elections, the number of college students voting jumped from 19 to 40 percent, according to a Tufts University study. At Bowdoin, this increase was slightly greater, rising from 16.3 to 40.4 percent based on a National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement report.

Still, Bowdoin hopes to improve this figure, which is not much above the national eligible voter turnout.

“Sometimes it’s bad data that gives you the motivation to do things differently,” said Andrew Lardie, associate director for service and leadership at the Joseph McKeen Center for the Common Good.

NESCAC Votes has been making headway, seeking to increase voter turnout by at least 11 percentage points across the 11 NESCAC campuses. The program, which started as a partnership between Middlebury and Bowdoin, is part of the College’s ambitious commitment to achieve what Lardie refers to as full student voter participation.

NESCAC Votes engages with the whole student population but pays special attention to athletic teams, relying on a network of voting captains and coach leaders to register and motivate new voters.

Owen Wolfson ’22, who helps run the Bowdoin Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (BSAAC), is responsible for the big picture strategy of recruiting and organizing voting captains.

“For the whole summer, BSAAC has been motivated by protests, racial injustice and social unrest,” Wolfson said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “We wanted to make sure we were doing our part for Athletes Of Color Coalition and inclusivity and diversity within the athletics department. This just spoke as one of the best ways to go about that change.”

When asked about tangible goals, Wolfson was very clear.

“We want 100 percent voter registration among student athletes,” Wolfson said.

According to Nathan Alsobrook, Bowdoin’s nordic skiing head coach and a coach leader for NESCAC Votes, progress towards this goal has been evident.

“In the teams across campus, there’s just a lot of talk about voting and enthusiasm for registering,” Alsobrook said in a phone interview with the Orient. “I’ve seen a number of different athletics teams at Bowdoin and other NESCAC schools post on social media that they are proud to say ‘100 percent of our athletes are registered.’”

McKeen Center staff have also noticed higher enthusiasm and involvement from students during this election cycle.

“I’ve been really impressed with how quickly the coaches and players mobilized to make sure folks have the information they need to vote,” Lardie said. “It’s not easy to take responsibility for your roommate or classmate, but people are really taking it seriously this year.”

While college conference voter registration programs exist across the country, from Southern Conference Votes to the Big Ten Voting Challenge, NESCAC Votes is unique in part because it is focused on more than engaging students through athletics.

“If we don’t graduate students who are prepared to participate fully as citizens and understand their power in relation to society, then we have failed the students educationally,” Lardie added. “Some people approach education as a mostly professional preparation. That’s not what the liberal arts is about.”

At the same time, the emphasis NESCAC Votes places on engaging sports teams has been a fundamental part of its success.

Maya Chandar-Kouba ’23, a voting captain for the crew and squash teams, uses team GroupMe, text and email contacts to make sure everyone’s on track to vote.

“There’s a tracker for each of the teams, which I fill out with where people are in the voting process,” Chandar-Kouba said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “There’s [tons] of columns and most of them are filled out, which is really good to see. [It] means people have voted or are voting in person. They have a plan.”


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