Students get an education while registering classmates to vote

The students in Paru Shah’s political science class were absolutely silent as they finished watching “Selma — The Bridge to the Ballot,” a powerful documentary on the Voting Rights Act of 1965. On the screen they saw young people clubbed with nightsticks, tear-gassed, poked with cattle prods, beaten, jailed and even killed as they tried to help African Americans register to vote.

“We should make every student on campus watch that video. Maybe then they’ll vote,” said Mykelle Richards, one of the students in Shah’s class.

Richards and the other students in the class, “Multicultural America: Minority Voting Rights and Representation,” have a special interest in encouraging fellow students to register and vote this year.

As a service learning project, they are all taking part in nonpartisan efforts to educate voters and encourage them to register early to avoid long lines at the polling places serving UWM. Shah, an associate professor of political science, said, “I wanted to teach this class. It was a great opportunity during this election year.”

Early mail-in registration in Wisconsin ends Oct. 19, and UWM is planning to wrap up on-campus efforts by Tuesday, Oct. 18, so completed registration forms can be delivered to the Milwaukee Election Commission by Oct. 19. (Students can still register at Milwaukee City Hall in person through 5 p.m. Nov. 4.)

Nastacia Smith is one of the students involved in helping other UWM students register early. (UWM Photo/Derek Rickert)

Nastacia Smith is one of three students who received fellowships to encourage voter education on campus.

The goal of the campus-wide effort is to make voting less stressful for students, said Laurie Marks, executive director of the Center for Community-Based Living, Learning and Research, which is coordinating the efforts. During the last presidential election, hundreds of students stood in line for hours on election day to register before voting at the two polling places that serve most students living on or near campus – Sandburg Hall and Riverside University High School.

This year, students, staff and faculty who’ve been trained by elections officials are deputized to serve as registrars at the CCBLLR office (Union G28),  library guest services desk and the Union information desk. (See http://uwm.edu/vote/ for information on what identification students need to register and vote.) More than 760 registrations have been collected on campus.

“We want to help them engage in the voting process and create good civic habits,” Marks said.

Students such as Nastacia Smith, a junior majoring in public relations, and the first-generation students in Shah’s class are taking an active part in educating and encouraging their fellow students to get involved.

Smith is one of three Wisconsin students taking part in a national nonpartisan initiative to engage young people in the 2016 debates and election. The project, based at Dominican University of California, is using technology and social media to energize a new generation to get involved in the election process. Smith was also one of three UWM students, including Allyson Brunner and Jon Watts, to receive a Campus Election Engagement Fellowship from the Wisconsin Compact to encourage students to become involved in the elections.

It’s a challenge.

“I think the problem is that some of the students that can vote don’t realize they can vote on or near campus or aren’t sure what ID they need,” said Mai Chong Lee, a first-year student.

Most of the eight students in the class have been deputized as registrars, except for Halimo Bilal and Halima Abdillahi, who cannot because they are not U.S. citizens and are instead focusing on voter education.

Like the others though, they’ve learned about the election process through the League of Women Voters and the class, and are prepared to help out with voter education. All of the students in the class are part of a RiverView Residence Hall Living Learning Center, designed for students who are first in their families to attend college.

Although they approach the voter education and registration process in a nonpartisan way, the students aren’t afraid to voice their opinions about the current presidential candidates in the classroom. In a recent class, for example, the students discussed the second presidential debate and had a variety of opinions on issues such as whether Donald Trump’s sexist comments matter, if Hillary Clinton was better but “too rehearsed” or if they could write in Bernie Sanders.

“I don’t want him to be president,” said Ashley Jusino of Trump’s performance in the debate, “but he’s good entertainment.”

Smith doesn’t think she’ll ever be a politician herself, though she’d like to work in politics. She was slow to warm to the field.

“I wasn’t really in interested in politics when I was in high school at all,” she said. A research project on Germany’s clean energy policies got her interested in the political process.

“Then when I graduated and was able to vote and make decisions, I got more interested and started reading up more. I wanted to research more to know who I was voting for and what their policies were.”

Her experience in helping campus organizations get out the vote has energized her, Smith said.

“I used to think ‘what can one person do?” she added. “Now I know that my vote counts and our votes can change things.”

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