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Student leaders and PKG Center team up to encourage civic engagement this November

Bolstered by campus partnerships and TurboVote, the student-led group MITvote is working to increase voter turnout.
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Kelsey Merrill (left) with Shea Lomardo (right), co-chairs of MITvote, on Super Tuesday 2020
Photo courtesy of PKG Center
Image courtesy of MITvote

Voter registration and mobilization can be challenging, even in pre-Covid times and especially at colleges with a large population of STEM majors, a field with the lowest undergraduate voter turn-out rate of any field of study. But, with the November 2020 election fast approaching, MIT students aren’t letting anything get in the way of their message about the vital importance of voting.

Building on the foundation established in 2017 through MIT’s implementation of TurboVote — an online, nonpartisan service that helps community members register and vote, in person or absentee, in every local, state, and national election — the student-led group MITvote is working virtually and across campus to maximize voter registration. MITvote receives guidance and support from MIT’s PKG Center for Public Service, which oversees the TurboVote program.

Led by graduate student Seamus Lombardo and junior Kelsey Merrill, MITvote works to make voting more accessible and to encourage civic engagement. Founded on the idea that voting is not only a right, but also a powerful tool for individuals in every walk of life, MITvote endeavors to keep students and the rest of the MIT community informed, engaged, and registered to vote, regardless of where their ballots are cast or for whom they choose to vote.

“Voting is the most direct and powerful way the everyday citizen has to influence public policy,” Merrill says. “While a single vote can feel insignificant in a population of millions, being an active, engaged member of the voting population changes the face of that group and ultimately holds politicians accountable to the aggregate voters’ voice. With higher rates of turnout, our democracy is healthier and more representative of who we are. MITvote made it easy for me to jump in and get involved, and working to increase voter turnout quickly became part of my life at MIT.”

These efforts are paying off: In 2014, the voting rate for MIT students was just 13.2 percent. But data from the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement (NSLVE) show that, by 2018, MIT had a voting rate of 39.7 percent, slightly higher than the 39.1percent average for all U.S. colleges and universities participating in NSLVE.

In recent weeks, MITvote and the PKG Center for Public Service have intensified their efforts, partnering with community members across the Institute on the following action steps designed to encourage civic engagement this election season:

  • President Reif wrote to the MIT community in advance of National Voter Registration Day on Sept. 22, noting, “I hope everyone in our community who is eligible to vote will find a safe way to do so — whether in person or by mail ­— without letting the pandemic get in the way.”
  • MIT is participating in the ALL IN Democracy Challenge, an effort enabling higher education institutions to “help students form the habits of active and informed citizenship, make democratic participation a core value on their campus, and cultivate generations of engaged citizens who are essential to a healthy democracy.”
  • Faculty leaders responsible for teaching and managing the Legal Studies Concentration within the MIT undergraduate curriculum sent MITvote materials to their colleagues at MIT, encouraging them to share the content with students, noting, “We write not from partisan affiliation but from allegiance to the rule of law and the American Constitution, which are significant portions of our teaching and expertise. The American experiment in democracy has been a rare counterfactual to most political history, surviving while extending its promises of citizen participation over these 245 years.”
  • The Office of the First Year hosted an event entitled “All Things Voting with MITvote” during first-year orientation. The virtual gathering presented students with an opportunity to register to vote, obtain absentee ballots, and ask questions about voting in college.
  • Messages on the importance of voting have been prominently displayed at the MIT Medical Covid-19 testing trailer as well as the Atlas Center.
  • The PKG Center for Public Service launched an eight-week experiential learning opportunity — Let’s Talk Voting — so students can learn and implement effective engagement strategies with their fellow students around voting and civic discourse.

With less than two months until the November elections, MITvote and the PKG Center for Public Service encourage all unregistered members of the MIT community who are eligible to vote to sign up on TurboVote, confirm their local polling stations, and explore who is on their local ballots. The MITvote website contains a centralized location for all relevant voting resources, including links to voter registration through Turbovote and registration deadlines and other voting deadlines for every state.

“Whether you’re voting in person or by mail, having a plan in place is important,” says Jill Bassett, PKG Center associate dean and director. “At a time when many aspects of life seem beyond our control, voting is a concrete way members of our community can ensure their voices are counted.”

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