Students Turn Out for Democracy

The UMW Votes team urged students to make their voices heard at the polls. Photo by Suzanne Carr Rossi ’00.

UMW students, faculty, and staff spent months preparing for the nonpartisan National Voter Registration Day on Sept. 22. Students got information about early voting, absentee voting, and how to get ballot information. Mary Washington also formed a UMW Votes team and had an Oct. 24 Vote Early Day. It was one of the nation’s first universities to cancel classes on Election Day, establishing a Day on Democracy to facilitate civic and community engagement.

Placing a priority on getting UMW students to the polls has paid off in recent years, said Sarah Dewees, associate director of the Center for Community Engagement (CCE). Two-thirds of the student body cast ballots in the last presidential election, and 53 percent voted in the 2018 midterms, earning UMW the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge Platinum Seal last fall.

In 2019, the University Faculty Council went a step further, voting to hold UMW’s first Day on Democracy in 2020. The first of its kind in the commonwealth of Virginia, the nonpartisan celebration on Nov. 3 and events leading up to it gave the Mary Washington community the chance to reflect on and engage in practicing and protecting the tenets of American democracy.

“President Paino has called upon UMW students to address society’s demands, challenge injustices, and embrace the world’s possibilities,” Dewees said. “One of the ways we do this is by building civic engagement skills, learning about our political processes, and finding a way for our voices to be heard.”

But COVID-19 complicated the voting process, she said. DMVs and libraries were closed last summer, leading to a significant drop in new voter registrations. Many Americans cast their ballots by mail for the first time to avoid long lines at the polls. A new commonwealth law allowed Virginians to vote early in person beginning 45 days before the election. Young people also were recruited to work the polls, replacing older volunteers who are more vulnerable to the virus.

Events like the National Voter Registration Day are critical for helping first-time and seasoned voters navigate these changes, Dewees said. Volunteers helped new students register to vote at tables along Campus Walk with touchless applications and personal pens. They also offered a prize wheel, goodie bags, and coupons for Freddy Doughnuts.

“We want to create a safe environment for students to get the information they need to become active participants in our democracy,” said senior Stephanie Turcios, one of three Mary Washington students engaged in fellowships to increase young voter turnout. As a member of the UMW Votes team, she spent the summer reaching first-time voters through social media and delivered in-person and virtual presentations to classes this fall.

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