Beyond Campus: Reaching Voters in Need
Vote Everywhere Ambassadors register and mobilize students to vote as their first priority. As our student leaders realize the challenges their peers face in registering and reaching the polls, they become attuned to the voting struggles other populations face, as well. With this awareness, Vote Everywhere Ambassadors find motivation to advocate on behalf of off-campus populations, who also face significant voting barriers.
Within the last year, Vote Everywhere Ambassadors have worked with voters who are differently abled, face homelessness, and who are survivors of domestic violence to address voting difficulties these groups face.
At University of California-Berkeley, Vote Everywhere Team Leader Sarah Funes made the decision to work with voters with disabilities. As a member of this community, she understands the unique challenges of voting in California as a person with disabilities. Before becoming part of Vote Everywhere, Sarah served as a poll worker. In this role, she made sure she was knowledgeable about the use of the Disability Accessible Unit (DAU) for voting. She also serves on the California Secretary of State’s Voting Accessibility Advisory Committee.
In 2016, the state of California passed the Voter’s Choice Act. Under this Act, county-wide “vote centers” will replace neighborhood polling places. Voters will also receive ballots by mail, which they may return either by mail, at any secure drop box in their county, or at a vote center in their county. Implementation will begin in 2018.
For many people, the vote center model creates additional opportunities. Voters can register to vote at these centers, vote early, and have the flexibility to choose any center within the county for convenience. However, Sarah believes this model creates increased difficulties for voters with disabilities.
Vote centers are likely located farther from voters’ homes than traditional polling places, making them difficult to reach for those who do not drive. Sarah believes the model also creates difficulties for voters who are dyslexic or blind, since the mail-in ballots are not accessible in this way. While there is a system in place to read the ballot to voters through a computer program, it still must be printed out to return. This requires voters to pay postage or obtain transportation to a drop box or vote center. According to Sarah, “One of the biggest problems with this system is that if voters aren’t going to the polls, they aren’t visible in their communities and cannot make politicians aware of their issues.”
In reaction to these issues, Sarah participated in the San Mateo County Abilities Expo on October 27-29, 2017. At the Expo, individuals with disabilities and their family members had the opportunity to try out products and attend workshops geared specifically towards their needs. For the first time, this year, Sarah, along with community partners including the San Mateo County Registrar of Voters, offered voter registration. The San Mateo County Registrar of Voters brought a DAU for voters to try, which helped people understand the way in which they would vote on election day. In Sarah’s opinion, this opportunity represents a step towards eliminating barriers. “My way to combat the challenges we face is to make sure people are registered and educated on the new system,” she says.
Other Vote Everywhere teams have chosen to reach out to community members experiencing homelessness. Various campus groups at Queens College, the school Andrew Goodman attended prior to his murder, partner with Midnight Run to deliver food, clothing, and other supplies to New Yorkers experiencing homelessness. Joseph Hill, the Vote Everywhere Team Leader at Queens College, saw the opportunity to expand this program by including voter registration.
According to Joseph, voters who face homelessness encounter many challenges, because “most probably don’t understand the fact that they actually can register to vote.” According to New York State law, a person without a traditional address can register using a cross street, a park, or any other location where they typically spend the night. They also must list a mailing address to receive election materials. For this purpose, they need to identify an advocacy organization, shelter, or other location willing to accept mail on their behalf. Joseph hopes to combat the challenges these voters face by educating the people he meets about their right to vote. He also hopes that returning to the same locations on a monthly basis will help him connect to voters and make sure they stay informed about elections.
In addition to the practical issues, Joseph acknowledges that voters experiencing homelessness “might not see the use in being civically engaged. They don’t have faith in the system or any belief in it. Politicians ignore them and don’t ever try to get their votes.” This challenge doubles as an opportunity, according to Joseph. “If they go to town hall meetings and show politicians that they can come together, they could actually change their situation. They could show the politicians the faces of the people they’re cutting funding from. They could make a difference in the system.”
Vote Everywhere Ambassadors at Bard College found inspiration in hearing of other teams registering homeless individuals to vote. Team Leader Eva-Marie Quinones realized that even though the Hudson Valley does not have a large homeless population, due to the lack of cities, those living in domestic violence shelters also lack a permanent address.
People who have experienced domestic violence face specific voting difficulties, especially if they wish to keep their address confidential. The Address Confidentiality Program (ACP) allows survivors of domestic violence to keep their current address confidential on voting records.
To receive information about participating in the ACP, a person has to contact the county Board of Elections. Eva-Marie found this process to be difficult. “They were a bit hesitant to give me the information without proving that I personally was a victim of domestic violence. I imagine this could also dissuade a lot of women from doing so. Furthermore, you have to bring in your voter registration in person, rather than mailing it, and most women at shelters don’t have cars or easy means of transportation. Finally, in order to enroll in the ACP, you have to have a court-ordered protection order or other legal proof of domestic violence. This is more than a little frustrating, because so many women who are literally running for their lives don’t stop to go through cumbersome legal processes.”
To combat the voting barriers survivors of domestic violence face, the Bard Vote Everywhere team reached out to the Grace Smith House in Poughkeepsie, which is the largest domestic violence shelter in the U.S. In working with the Grace Smith House, the team held a voter registration seminar, helped a victim of domestic violence register to vote using the ACP, and spent time training the staff on voter registration. To expand their efforts, Eva-Marie and her co-Ambassador Jessica Zaccagnino put together a voting rights guide for survivors of domestic violence.
Eva-Marie recalls her work with the Grace Smith House as “the best thing we did all semester—It was great to meet such highly trained, dedicated staff, who were devoted to their job and eager to share their knowledge with us and vice versa!”
By reaching beyond student voter populations, Vote Everywhere teams carry on Andrew Goodman’s legacy. Like Andrew Goodman did when he decided to travel to Mississippi to register African-American voters, they dedicate themselves to helping voters who face the most significant barriers. These teams seek to create change beyond campus and spread voting rights to every citizen in their community.
About the Author
Emily Curran is the Communications and Development Manager of The Andrew Goodman Foundation. Emily holds a Ph.D. in History and Culture from Drew University, where she focused on twentieth-century American cultural history, culminating in a dissertation entitled, “Natural and Technological Wonders: Embracing Modernity at Carlsbad Caverns National Park.” She received her Bachelor’s degree in History and American Studies from Ramapo College, where she now teaches as an adjunct professor. Prior to joining AGF, she worked as the Visitor Services Coordinator at the Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms, and she remains an active volunteer with the museum.