Chapin Hall at Williams College is seen from the front and its columns are decorated with banners spelling out V-O-T-E.

Election 2020: Voting Challenge Accepted

In a mid-October letter, President Maud S. Mandel encouraged all members of the campus community to take part in the political process. “No matter which party, candidate or ideology you may support, the state of our national political culture is cause for concern,” she wrote. “It’s the job of a school like Williams to help people analyze and address societal challenges, among which ensuring a vital and inclusive democracy ranks highly.”

Students, faculty and staff alike have taken on that job this semester through events, programs and other opportunities to get informed about and involved with the election and issues of voting rights and political participation. 

One such group is the student-founded, nonpartisan EphVotes, which strives to “engage students with their civic duties and their political responsibilities at a time when the nation needs it more than ever,” according to their statement of purpose. Operating with the support of, and in conjunction with, the Center for Learning in Action (CLiA), the group focuses on encouraging student turnout at the local, state and federal levels. 

The word "vote" is written in chalk across the walkway in front of Sawyer Library.
EphVotes decorated campus walkways with chalk message encouraging students to vote.

Normally, EphVotes would table in the Paresky Center and recruit volunteers to work in-person registration events—last year, 36 volunteers registered 150 people over eight hours on National Voter Registration Day. But with the Covid-19 pandemic, the group has had to pivot and figure out how to mobilize students virtually and across different locations.

“This year, we tried to expand [engagement] with a peer registration program, where students registered their [residential] pods,” said Solly Kasab ’21, cofounder of EphVotes. “With everything going digital, we’ve had to transition. One aspect of that was sending an email to every student with the specific details from their state, in terms of registration, deadlines and other information they needed to register to cast their ballot.” The group has encouraged their peers to register through TurboVote, a guided website made specifically for Williams students that also helps with applying for absentee ballots and reminds you of upcoming deadlines, and has distributed pre-stamped envelopes, extra stamps and info sheets to the mailboxes of every on-campus student.

“I have been very impressed with the creative and wide-ranging ways the EphVotes group has adapted in the face of Covid,” said Paula Consolini, the Adam Falk Director of CLiA. “They’ve been using a great variety of techniques to get both on-campus and remote students’ attention, make the case for the importance of voting and provide individualized help.”

EphVotes has set ambitious goals for the 2020 presidential election. Every two years Tufts’ National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement (NSOLV) aggregates student registration and voting data for participating campuses. In 2014, the Williams student registration rate was 32.2%, with a voter turnout rate of 10.2%; in 2018, when EphVotes was founded, those numbers jumped to 80.4% and 42.2%, respectively. “For this election, we aim to achieve a 90% voter registration rate amongst eligible voters and an 80% voting rate amongst those registered voters,” said Kasab.

The college is doing its own part to support that goal. In August, President Mandel signed on to the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, joining more than 160 college presidents and chancellors in committing to full student voter registration and participation in all elections. By signing the pledge, Williams committed to ensuring that all eligible students are able to register to vote and cast informed ballots, and to fostering a campus culture that supports nonpartisan student civic learning, political engagement and student voter participation.

Recently, learning and engagement has taken the form of special virtual events open to the campus community and the public, including a panel where President Mandel and the presidents of Berkshire Community College, Howard University and Rutgers University discussed the impact of voting rights and the 2020 election on college and university campuses. “Democracy wins when it represents all the people it serves,” she told viewers. More programming is being planned for the days and weeks after the election, including a series of discussion groups hosted by faculty and staff, titled “The State of the (Dis)union: Making Our Place in a Divided America.” Recordings of past events and details for upcoming ones can be found below. CLiA has also shared a public list of ways the campus community can support the electoral process, ranging from student voter registration to voting rights efforts across the U.S. 

Ultimately, Kasab says, the most important message to get across to students right now is that “if you don’t vote, you have no say in the future of this country. Regardless of who you vote for, your right to be heard is paramount, and the first way to make change on the issues that affect you is the small process of casting a ballot.”


Election-Related Events & Activities

October 16: 2020 Presidential Election Discussion
James McAllister, the Fred Greene Third Century Professor of Political Science, discussed the presidential debates, the upcoming election and what this election’s outcome could mean for the future of world politics. Watch the recording here.

October 20: Voting Rights, Election 2020, Colleges, Universities and Us
President Mandel, Ellen Kennedy of Berkshire Community College, Wayne Frederick of Howard University and Jonathan Holloway of Rutgers University reflected on the implications of voting rights and Election 2020 for the biggest issues facing colleges and universities today. This event was cohosted by the W. Ford Schumann ’50 Program in Democratic Studies at Williams and the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers. Watch the recording here.

Monday and Tuesday, October 26–27, 10:30 a.m.–1:30 p.m.: Balloting Assistance
The EphVotes team will offer in-person (socially distanced) balloting help at tables outside the Paresky Center. Stop by for envelopes, stamps and information on how to correctly fill out and mail your ballot. 

Tuesday, October 27 8–9 p.m.: Pre-Election Roundtable
Join this Zoom discussion and Q&A with Williams faculty focused on the dynamics of the 2020 election. Roundtable participants will offer their perspectives and insights, inviting attendees to raise questions and offer their own observations.
Jeff Israel, Associate Professor of Religion
James McAllister, Fred Greene Third Century Professor of Political Science
Tara Watson, Professor of Economics
Moderator: Ngonidzashe Munemo, Professor of Political Science and Chair of Global Studies
Watch the recording here.

Tuesday, November 3, starting at 9 p.m., and Wednesday, November 4, starting at 9 a.m.: Time for Reflection
If you would like to connect on or after Election Day, join fellow students, faculty and staff in these Zoom drop-in sessions, hosted by the Davis Center/Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; Integrative Wellbeing Services; and the Chaplains’ Office. Davis Center Community Engagement Fellows and Chaplains’ Office Ambassadors will also be in attendance. [Login information forthcoming]

Wednesday, November 4, 7–8 p.m.: The Fight for Voting Rights: A View from the Ground
Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director, National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
Ryan P. Haygood, President and CEO, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice
Nina Perales, Vice President, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. Daniel P. Tokaji, Fred W. & Vi Miller Dean and Professor of Law, University of Wisconsin
Moderator: Leticia Smith-Evans Haynes ’99, Vice President for Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
[Login information forthcoming]