Voter Engagement at Reed College and Beyond

Few would disagree that the 2020 United States presidential election is unprecedented. Nationwide protests against racial injustice have continued since mid-May, the COVID-19 pandemic shows no sign of stopping, and American voters are faced with a vote-by-mail system.

Illustration by Mychal Miller

Illustration by Mychal Miller

In light of all this, members of the Reed College community have worked to prepare American Reedies and other voters nationwide for the 2020 general election. Voter Engagement Coordinator for the Office for Student Engagement, senior Alyssa Andrichik, has designed a website called “Voting in the 2020 General Election,” which includes a map of the United States summarizing absentee voter laws in all 50 states and a small database with educational materials on voter suppression. Professor of Political Science at Reed College Paul Gronke created the Early Voter Information Center (EVIC) in 2005 to find solutions for election administration problems. Currently, Gronke works in conjunction with state governments and other organizations on issues related to voting. Finally, Emily Hebbron, the faculty administrative coordinator for the Anthropology, Linguistics, and Political Science departments, has organized election watch parties and debate bingo nights, brought speakers to campus, and supported students in their work on voter engagement at Reed.

According to Hebbron, voter participation and suppression are two issues which have increased in importance at Reed, stating that “gradually over the years, I’ve gotten more and more involved in voter access issues and voter participation.” Her work has focused on supporting students who engage with these topics in the hope of breaking the “Reed bubble” and establishing meaningful connections between Reedies and the Portland community.

Andrichik is one of those students, and she believes it is important for Reedies to educate themselves on voter suppression in the United States, especially in the context of the 2020 election. 

“Voter suppression is really going to do it this year,” she said. “Trump is getting people to sign up to intimidate voters at the polls.” 

On Sept. 23, Donald Trump published a tweet inviting supporters to sign up to become “Trump Election Poll Watchers,” as a part of his “Army for Trump” election campaign. According to the Army for Trump campaign website, volunteers will participate in the president’s Election Day Operations. Responsibilities for volunteers include: “Getting Out the Vote (GOTV) to ensure any voters who did not vote early vote on election day. Depending on the state, volunteers may be involved in other Election Day activities such as precinct coverage.” 

Historically, voter suppression has been a tactic employed by white Americans to inhibit the participation of people of color in U.S. elections. According to David Graham’s 2016 The Atlantic article entitled “Republicans Have Been ‘Rigging’ Elections for Years,” these practices continue into the present day in the form of voter ID laws, purging voter rolls, and shorter early voting periods.

Trump’s “Poll Watchers” are part of a larger trend in the Republican party’s voter suppression strategy. Gronke states that the Republican Party has relied heavily on voter suppression to succeed in elections for the last 20 years. 

“It’s sort of been a 20 year effort on the part of the Republican party to engage in vote suppression,” Gronke said. “Normally, I’m a lot more mild spoken about that, and I try to choose my words carefully. But this year, it’s just been so blatant.” 

Gronke has had his own problems with Republican voter suppression. In Pennsylvania, the EVIC has worked to establish voter drop boxes, a practice the Trump campaign has been trying to criminalize. “The Trump campaign has been suing to try to outlaw the use of drop boxes,” Gronke explained. “There is strong scientific evidence that dropboxes [are] very safe and voters like them.”  

Regarding the impact of polling places shutting down due to COVID-19, Gronke said, “the problem is that the populations that are impacted by that are exactly the populations that have historically been disenfranchised in the United States. So vote-by-mail is great for old white people like me… But for folks that are less connected, folks that don’t have permanent addresses that are more mobile, they really need in-person voting.” The Trump campaign’s effort to limit voter access only compounds the challenge presented by COVID-19.

Illustration by Mychal Miller

Illustration by Mychal Miller

Gronke added that states without large absentee ballot systems, like Pennsylvania and Michigan, may be unprepared to account for an incredibly high volume of mail-in ballots. 

“Pennsylvania and Michigan are allowing for the no excuse absentee option for the first time, their [absentee ballot numbers] are probably going to go up 10 times,” Gronke said.  “Further, that means that if a place in Pennsylvania is going from five to 50%, they’re probably not ready to count those ballots quickly enough.” Voter suppression and inexperienced polling places are issues that not only affect Reed students but the entire national community. 

Reed College has its own issues with voter participation. Reedies have historically had a low voter turnout rate. A survey conducted by the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) found that while 74.4% of Reed students were registered to vote in the 2018 midterm election, only 25.9% cast their ballots. 

“I think sometimes there’s a tendency to, especially if you come from a place of privilege, and you end up at a place like Portland, you can feel like, ‘Oh, this is great, everything’s fine here,’” Hebbron said. 

Andrichik’s high school experience serves as a good example of why people from conservative states see voting as an important issue. 

“I’m from suburban Texas,” Andrichik explained. “So we were coming to school, and there are pickup trucks with the Confederate flag hanging off the window.” Her experience in suburban Texas is what led her to work on promoting voter registration at Reed.

However, Andrichik believes that the issue is not simply an over privileged student body or an unawareness of the challenges faced by people within conservative states. “Something that Reed has been lacking is giving information to students, which is something I really wanted to work on,” Andrichik said. 

Gronke stated that Reed has historical problems registering its students to vote and maintaining institutional memory for voter registration programs. 

“There’s nothing particularly special about Reed other than we’ve had a lot of administrative turnover in the last couple years,” Gronke said. “And a lot of the lessons that we’ve learned in 2016 and 2018, we had to learn them again.” A high rate of administrative turnover has most likely contributed to Reed’s low voting rate. 

Despite the challenges presented by high administrative turnover and a hostile political environment, Hebbron, Gronke, and Andrichik encouraged students to participate in their local elections, where the impact of one’s vote is most likely to be felt. Hebbron described it as an excellent way for one to engage with their community. 

“By learning about the political structures in your area, everything from local to federal, you can learn a whole lot about your community,” Hebbron said. 

Andrichik concurred, stating that there are “very important things that are beyond who’s president and the presidential election that can have a lot of influence on people, and do have a lot of influence on people.”

However, Andrichik noted that voting alone will not solve all of America’s issues, stating, “voting doesn’t solve everything. It really doesn’t.” 

While Reed students may disagree on the morality, practicality, and usefulness of participating in the United States’ electoral process, it is clear that voting (and who is allowed to vote) can and will affect our lives on both the local and national level.

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Nancy Lerandeau
Nancy Lerandeau
2 years ago

Good article. I hope it spurs more “Reedies” to vote.

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