Where Are They Now: MacKenzie Bills

MacKenzie Bills, Vote Everywhere alumna from Simpson College, holds democracy to the highest standard. Before she became an Ambassador, MacKenzie noticed there was a segment of students on her campus who did not identify as Republicans or Democrats. Those students were either Independents, did not know which party they supported, or had a very specific list of issues they cared about. Bills found many of the on-campus student organizations ruled them out of the political discourse, but she believed those students should be civically engaged, too. She started a club called Simpson Votes in order to ensure the voices of that student population would be heard on campus and the wider community. Shortly afterward, the interim director of The John C. Culver Public Policy Center recommended she join Vote Everywhere.

We recently sat down with Bills for our “Where are they now” series to discuss her experience in the Vote Everywhere program, her passion for global democracy, and the power of Andrew Goodman’s legacy.

Vote Everywhere Ambassadors have an incredible opportunity to shape the direction of civic engagement work on their campuses. Please tell us a little bit more about your time with Vote Everywhere. What initiatives did your team take on?

We first started out by working to register students. We registered roughly 60% of the college. Iowa is very liberal in its voter registration policies. It offers election day registration, absentee ballots, and alternative voting locations. You can register to vote the same day and you can even do off-site voting, which only requires about 200 signatures. We did all of those things to help students get involved, but then we started to notice a problem.

In Iowa, there is a law that states each district, ward, and polling location must be equal in its populations. Due to Simpson’s dense population juxtaposed with the small, rural community, the Iowa law divided the school into three different sections, with three different polling locations. This caused problems when after two years, we realized that we needed to re-register every student in order for them to vote in the next election at their new location as well as physically vote at a new polling location. One can imagine how confusing this becomes to the average student voter.

Alternatively, the students that attempted to register on Election Day hit another roadblock. An Iowa law states that an Iowa citizen can register to vote on Election Day as long as they show proof of Iowa residency. This could be shown with a lease agreement or something as punitive as a utility bill. Unfortunately, a school address did not make the cut. The state auditor’s office did not recognize the addresses at Simpson because similar to many universities, mail is often sent to a PO Box rather than the physical dorm location. According to Iowa law, it is impossible to live in a mailbox and therefore, any statement from the college was voided. In other words, Iowa law required students to maintain a physical leasing agreement, not only a mailbox address, which many higher education institutions do not offer.

Soon after that, I began working with the Iowa Secretary of State and the Campus Election Engagement Project on the mailing address issue and we discovered this was a problem at many liberal arts colleges across the state of Iowa. We ended up developing a new lease agreement for students so they could register on the date of an election.

It was a great time because Vote Everywhere was just getting started, so the sky was the limit. We made it our own. There were enough people and enough desire to make things happen.

What are you doing now? What does your typical day look like?

I have two passions. I care about voter engagement but I also really care about democratic engagement. Currently, I am a Report Editor for the United States Department of State in The Bureau of Democracy Human Rights and Labor (DRL). I work on the International Religious Freedom Report, which is mandated by Congress to come out every May. In my role, I analyze religious freedoms in sub-Saharan Africa. In the U.S., we have the right to free speech, the right to free press, and the right to assemble and petition, but we often take for granted our right to religious freedom and freedom of conscience. Most places in the world do not allow that. In many countries, your religion is tied to your socioeconomic status and therefore, it is much more difficult to share your religious identity or lack thereof. Some people are scared to show their religion and end up hiding in their basements because they could be locked up if they do share their religious orientation. So, we work with various organizations to synthesize the information and write up a report on every country. The report is often used by international organizations, national governments, and non-governmental organizations to push for human rights policy. This year, due to the report, Pakistan was placed on a special watch list which has caused international controversy and changes to internal policy.

Vote Everywhere Ambassadors and Alumni all exude a deep commitment to public service. Recently, Vote Everywhere Alumnus Michael Blichar Jr. became the first Ambassador to run for public office. Why do you think it is important for young people to be part of the conversations in the public sphere?

18-25-year-olds are not represented in local, state, or federal government. Although there are age restrictions, there is no reason why more young people shouldn’t be on a council or a board in their town. I recently had a friend who ran for school board, which makes perfect sense. We are fresh out of high school, and who is more knowledgeable about the ongoings of the education system than someone who left it a few years prior. I think we’re at a time when society is starting to realize the prejudice against young people–what ageism is and what it looks like. The idea that experience can only come with time is silly. Experience takes many forms, and through a diversity of people, innovation thrives. This is why I believe everyone deserves a place at the table and this means young people should not be afraid to take a seat. I empower all young people who are passionate about an issue or about change to take it upon themselves to pursue it. I am sure that they are not alone. There is a population out there that appreciates young ideas, and for young people to be representing themselves in local, state, and national government. Change will not come unless we take it upon ourselves to fight for it.

What is one skill you gained from your Vote Everywhere Ambassadorship that has been most valuable in your career?

I would say strategic planning. I learned how to think and see interconnectedness between the public domain, private sector, my university, and local changemakers. Everyone has a particular role to play and together, ideas become actions and actions become tangible change. It takes time to deeply understand people’s roles and to recognize when it’s your place to step up and your place to step back, and how best to leverage other people’s roles. Learning how to work with other people to make a change, to develop relationships, and to plan, is the best thing I learned through my Vote Everywhere experience.

How has the Andrew Goodman legacy informed your passion for civic engagement and public service?

I truly believe to have a voice, to be able to speak it, and to share your opinion without the government controlling you or your voice is the most basic human right we should all have. Being a Vote Everywhere Ambassador has allowed me to fight for that, just like Andy did. As Americans, we are lucky to be given the opportunity to fight for our thoughts and opinions. After spending time abroad, I have realized that most of the world does not have that opportunity.

Previously, I did some research in Kenya. In 2007/2008, there was a massive outbreak of electoral violence. Thousands of people were killed. This past year was the first time Kenya had an election since then. I remember talking to a Kenyan friend. I was so excited to discuss the future of the country and the role young people could play in the elections. When I asked who he would vote for, he said, “Why would I vote? I don’t want to die.” I was speechless. To think that voting was 1) not a private affair and 2) that if I voted for the wrong party, someone might come after me, and that my life could be lost, was insanity. I truly felt lucky that I have never had to think of such implications and it empowered me more so to make sure no one must endure this treatment. That’s why I fight for voter engagement, for the right to be able to vote, to share your opinion, to have freedom of the press, the freedom to assemble and petition, not just here in the United States, but all over the world.

Since the launch of Simpson Votes, MacKenzie has remained involved in the Vote Everywhere program by serving on the Alumni Association Executive Board. The executive board promotes the spirit of involvement in the program by collaborating with staff at The Andrew Goodman Foundation to support and connect alumni. In her career, she hopes to continue pushing for democracy, globally. She says, “It’s important to advocate for the freedom of conscience, religion, and speech. Those seem very basic, but they’re the lifeblood of a healthy democracy.”

About the Author

Kevin Hurtado is the Communications and Development Associate at The Andrew Goodman Foundation. He graduated from Ramapo College of New Jersey with a Bachelor’s in International Studies and a minor in Human Rights and Genocide. Previously, Kevin worked as an Executive Assistant and Office Manager at Newark Charter School Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting educational equity in the city of Newark.