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Midterms prompt Bowdoin Votes to encourage political engagement on campus

September 30, 2022

The 2022 midterm elections are only 39 days away. As political campaigns are preparing for their final push, so is Bowdoin Votes, the Joseph McKeen Center for the Common Good’s nonpartisan group that serves to increase campus political engagement. Bowdoin Votes Fellows Lucas Johnson ’22 and Samira Iqbal ’23 worked all summer preparing for the busy yet rewarding weeks ahead.

For their kickoff event, Bowdoin Votes held their yearly registration drive last week with student volunteers assisting fellow classmates in registering to vote, requesting absentee ballots and obtaining more information on what they will be voting for.

“We had over two dozen, if not more, registrations that day alone,” Johnson said. “We’ve been getting consistently, at our more significant tabling sessions, in the mid- to high- double digits [of registrants], and it has been really effective in being able to get people across the board engaged with the program.”

Bowdoin Votes has also recruited student volunteers to help with other roles including creating visuals and researching policies and policymakers that will be on the 2022 ballot.

“The fact that they are choosing to take the time out of their day to reach out to me and spend their time with Bowdoin Votes and even nominate themselves to do more work … [is something] I’m very grateful for,” Iqbal said.

Bowdoin Votes was established in 2015 by former McKeen Center employee Andrew Lardie. In its early days, Bowdoin Votes was primarily run by Lardie along with a few students. However, in its current state, it is a group of over 30 student volunteers led by the Bowdoin Votes Fellows and Associate Director for Public Service Wendy Van Damme.

Engagement with the community has been Bowdoin Votes’s top priority this election cycle. Iqbal has focused on reinstating the organization’s place in the Bowdoin community and filling gaps in institutional memory that have formed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We’re not back to normal. I don’t think we ever will be, but I think this year is us trying to make sure people know who we are. I think a lot of McKeen Center programming is struggling with getting [first-years], sophomores and even juniors involved because people have spent so little time on campus,” Iqbal said.

One of the ways Bowdoin Votes is doing this is by hiring Democracy Ambassadors. These students work alongside the Bowdoin Votes Fellows in the run-up to the election.

“The democracy ambassadors extend the reach of the team, and they are more intensively focused on this pre-election period,” Van Damme said.

The top priority of Bowdoin Votes is maximizing voter registration and voter turnout.

In addition to these focuses, Bowdoin Votes values educating students on their ballot initiatives, candidates and voting timeline. The student group will provide programming next week in honor of National Voter Education Week.

“Outside of just getting people to register we’re also putting on programming around the policy issues that are happening within Maine and then also around the country,” Johnson said. “While nationally there has been significant issues in getting individuals in the youngest age group to vote, it is something that we are very proud of for having such high levels of voter turnout year on year.”

Since 2012, the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement (NSLVE) at Tufts has been tracking political engagement of Bowdoin students. In their 2020 report, they found that an average of 77 percent of students voted in 2012 and 2016. This number then decreased in the midterm election in 2018 to 60 percent. However, in 2020, it skyrocketed to almost 90 percent, leaving Bowdoin Votes confident that they can continue this trend.

Assistant Professor of Government Ángel Saavedra Cisneros, who studies voting behaviors more broadly, noted that Bowdoin’s potential to have incredibly high student voter turnout has always been there and the recent boom is partially supported by Bowdoin Votes’s efforts.

“We have highly engaged, exceptional students at Bowdoin, so it’s really [that] you have already the people who are most likely to vote throughout their life, … people are already ready for this,” Saavedra Cisneros said. “So when Bowdoin Votes comes in and says, ‘Hey, we’re going to do a drive.’ ‘Okay, great.’ ‘Did you know you had to re-register every year?’ ‘No, I didn’t’ … ‘Oh, okay, I have to re-register. Now I can vote.’ … All of those things matter.”

Bowdoin Votes hopes to keep the numbers for engagement high this election cycle, but history is not in their favor: traditionally midterm elections result in lower voter turnout, especially among young people. Therefore, they’ve been focusing on getting data to students early to remind them that an election is just around the corner.

“A lot of [what] Bowdoin Votes [does] is data collection and then dispersal,” Johnson said. “Ensuring that we’re getting as much information as possible and getting [it] to students as quickly as [we] can.”

Even though Bowdoin Votes is focused on education and engagement, it is seeing a lot of enthusiasm among students.

“Because we do have a lot of interest when we’ve had the tables, people are right away with questions and comments,” Van Damme “When we had the volunteer trainings … there was a good amount of people that, as soon as they were trained, signed up to help at the tables so that’s exactly what you want to hear.”

This enthusiasm, in Saavedra Cisneros’ eyes, is promising.

“There was an 11 point increase [in youth turnout] from 2016 to 2020. Will that carry into the next election, which is a midterm? I doubt it, but it is really good because we’re seeing that people are voting more,” Saavedra Cisneros said. “I think college campuses have something to do with this. I think student turnout can be a driving factor.”


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