AMBASSADOR SPOTLIGHT: Jonian Rafti, Bard College
Jonian Rafti, is a senior at Bard College who majors in economics and history. At Bard, he is an elected member of the Student Government, a peer Counselor and he works closely with Bard’s Center for Civic Engagement. Jonian has served as an AGF Vote Everywhere Ambassador at Bard College for the 2014-2015 academic year.
What voting or civic engagement problem have you identified on campus?
It’s extremely difficult for students to vote because the polling place is only accessible by car. Students cannot walk, they cannot take a bus, and cannot even bike to the site.
The way we came about choosing this issue was unexpected. During one of the early AGF Spring training sessions, Carl Amritt (AGF Ambassador) and I were brainstorming different issues that we could tackle.
The polling place concern was very much a eureka moment that rapidly unfolded after a question was asked: if hundreds of local voters live at Bard, should the polling site be on-campus? That same night, having really touched on a motivating and meaningful issue, we started researching the possibility of a polling site change.
What did your Vote Everywhere team do to solve the problem?
Our problem isn’t yet solved but we’ve made great progress. In February and March, we devoted ourselves to legal and historic research. We discovered that the problem would take a year due to the timing restrictions, we closely examined documents from a failed 2009 campaign, and we submitted tailored public record requests to the local Board of Elections. Through this research, we’ve uncovered unfortunate discrepancies at the current site.
How has The AGF helped prepare (i.e. training) and/or support your work?
This is the first time that we’ve launched a campaign that involves so many different constituencies (targeting messaging to students on campus, local town board, Board of Election officials – each group has their own unique considerations). Training at the beginning of this semester was very useful in creating a long-term plan that we could attack bit by bit. The training helped us transform this big idea into smaller, tangible, steps that we could tackle individually. The plans we made in February are the things we’re doing now.
How does your Vote Everywhere team work with other campus groups?
As a non-partisan team, we’re interested in supporting and empowering other campus groups doing similar work. We advise students on voter registration options, we accept forms for mailing, we organize local candidate visits, and we even provide a free 12-hour polling shuttle on election day. I feel that Bard students really do trust us with all their voting concerns. That trust also extends to campus groups.
During 2014 election season, we trained members of a political campus club. When a student journalist wrote about local voting troubles, our historic document and video archive was key to their story. This Spring, we partnered with a student online video/media club to create a video highlighting the polling site problem. Additionally, we work closely with staff from Bard’s Center for Civic Engagement, and we’re supported by Bard’s Student Government as an official campus club.
What changed as a result of your initiative?
It was essentially a one-person team before I partnered with The AGF. I’ve been able to work with a team of motivated adults that share a desire to engage their peers. With the AGF’s help, we have been able to expand our efforts. Today, we have a closely-knit three-person team that works solely on voting advocacy. At a small school like Bard (2000) it makes all the difference. Between August and October 2014, we registered to vote or updated registrations for nearly a quarter of the student body.
What does it mean to Vote Everywhere?
To not only engage personally in the political process, but to also involve others – whether it’s being involved formally through a group or even as simply reaching out to friends to engage them. It’s not only about you as a voter, but also about those voters around you.