Student Stories

Increasing Voting Access at UA

Thanks to the work of Vote Everywhere Ambassadors at University of Alabama, UA students can now receive absentee ballots free of charge.

It’s November of 2014, midterm elections are around the corner, and University of Alabama (UA) sophomore Dana Sweeney cannot wait to place his very first vote. For a week, he eagerly awaits the absentee ballot he ordered from his hometown in Georgia. He goes to his school’s Campus Mail Center to pick up the anticipated envelope, but to the 18-year-old’s dismay, the Mail Center’s employees inform him that they returned it to sender. It was at this moment Sweeney first learned that in addition to their tuition, students at UA are responsible for paying upwards of $80 per semester if they desire to receive their own mail. The only exception to the rule–trackable packages, which can be received and collected on campus at no extra charge. Paying for a mailbox at UA would be an additional financial burden. As a result, thousands of out-of-state students on campus had not been voting.

Sweeney reached out to The Andrew Goodman Foundation (AGF) while researching ways he could address this voting barrier on campus. He had first heard of AGF from the University of Mississippi’s Vote Everywhere (VE) Ambassadors and emailed the foundation asking if they would consider bringing Vote Everywhere to The University of Alabama. “Our history tells us that voting rights are not guaranteed and that they can be revoked even once granted. I see voting rights being eroded today, and I frankly see it as a contemporary repeating of a history that America has already lived,” says Sweeney. In the Summer of 2015, Sweeney and his peers set out to reform their school’s mail policy.

They began by outlining a comprehensive, cost-neutral mail system. This system would allow students to receive their absentee ballots through the UA Campus Mail Center without needing to rent a mailbox or disrupt any mailroom procedures. The group even got the Tuscaloosa County Registrar to sign off on the policy proposal to certify its compliance with Alabama state election law. But in spite of the team’s efforts, the Campus Mail Center continued to brush off their hard work and disregard their solution to the problem. “When navigating the administrative side of colleges and universities, it can be extremely difficult for students to make headway due to the complex relationships and policies within an administration,” says AGF Program Manager Nicole Casta.

The students received a string of excuses from the Director of Campus Mail refusing to approve the new system. The Director argued that no one had ever complained about it before. Facing constant deterrences and bewildered by the difficulty of changing school policy, the students became frustrated, but they knew they needed to keep pushing as the 2016 presidential election was quickly approaching.

In Spring 2016, UA became a Vote Everywhere school. Sweeney, joined by two UA students Norris Davis and Stephen Grover, began working with The AGF to come up with a strategy to tackle the issue with UA’s mail system. We worked with our Ambassadors to find the most effective route toward accomplishing their goal. We looked at who the Ambassadors and Campus Champions knew, where their influence was, and how those relationships could be used to make connections and gain support,” recalls Costa. AGF was able to connect the team to the Fair Elections Legal Network (FELN), which ultimately led the VE Ambassadors to victory. The FELN allowed the students to chart how rare it is for schools to restrict student voting rights in the way The University of Alabama had been doing. It also allowed the team to highlight the potential illegality of it. At the end of Summer 2016, The University of Alabama finally adopted the new mail policy.

UA Vote Everywhere team registers voters on campus in anticipation of the 2016 presidential election.

The results of the new policy were prevalent in the 2016 presidential election. 1,211 out-of-state students cast their vote via absentee ballots using the new Campus Mail Center system. Before this major change to the school’s policy, it is unlikely any of these students would have gone through the intricate and expensive process required to vote absentee at UA. Sweeney statesToo much has been sacrificed — particularly in Alabama — for us to be flippant about the state of our voting rights.” The UA Vote Everywhere team hopes to use their experience to aid other schools with overcoming similar barriers to voting.

The team has also been working on laying the groundwork for future campaigns, some of which include institutionalizing voter registration in their student orientation programs and increasing civic participation in next year’s Student Government Association elections. Their ultimate goal is to have other Millennials, the largest age demographic in the electorate,  increase their voter turnout and begin to proactively shape their future on campus, in Alabama, and across the country.