Callie Jordan remembers everything about her first election at age 18 – the poll workers excitedly handing her a ballot, penciling in the little circles to mark her choices and getting an American flag sticker to show the world that she had voted.
But what she remembers most is feeling empowered. “I felt valued by my community,” she said, “and that I had a share of political power and influence.”
That’s why Jordan, a University of Mary Washington sophomore, is working tirelessly, in the midst of a global pandemic, to help her fellow students participate in the upcoming presidential election. UMW students, faculty and staff have spent months preparing for National Voter Registration Day, a nonpartisan holiday set for tomorrow, Sept. 22. Mary Washington also has formed a UMW Votes team, plans an Oct. 24 Vote Early Day, and is 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 the University 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.” The first of its kind in the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nonpartisan celebration on Nov. 3, and events leading up to it, will give the Mary Washington community the chance to reflect on and engage in practicing and protecting the tenets of American democracy. Jordan has also met with the City of Fredericksburg’s Registrar about establishing a polling location on campus to make it easier for students to vote in future elections.
“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 has complicated the voting process, she said. DMVs and libraries were closed this summer, leading to a significant drop in new voter registrations. Many Americans will cast their ballots by mail for the first time to avoid long lines at the polls. A new Commonwealth law allows Virginians to vote early in person beginning 45 days before the election. Young people are also being recruited to work the polls, replacing older volunteers who are more vulnerable to the virus.
Events like tomorrow’s National Voter Registration Day are critical for helping first-time and even seasoned voters navigate these changes, Dewees said. Volunteers will help new students register to vote at tables along Campus Walk, with “touchless” applications and personal pens, plus 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 has been delivering in-person and virtual presentations to classes this fall.
“There are so many pressing injustices in the world, from the pandemic to systemic racism to the climate crisis,” said sophomore Christian Lyman, who’s volunteering with UMW Votes for his Honors Program service project. “Voting for politicians who listen and address those concerns allows change to happen.”
Sitting out isn’t an option this year, Jordan said. But watching so many young people protest for Black Lives Matter this summer has given her hope that they’ll cast their ballots in record numbers this fall.
“Our generation is historically underestimated,” she said, “but when we come together, our strength is unmatched.”