Antonia Hellman, ’21
The importance of civic participation: The early days of StanfordVotes
Two years ago, I was a sophomore, and the 2018 midterm election was approaching. This election was going to be incredibly influential for our country. However, Stanford students did not have a good track record of participation.
In the 2014 midterm election, fewer than one in five Stanford students voted—a dismal rate. In fact, Stanford’s turnout was lower than the national average among college students. Historically, young people have always cast ballots at lower rates than all older generations; however, that rate had been getting lower and lower each year.
As a first-year member of Stanford in Government (SIG), I had not been entrusted with much responsibility. In a moment, however, that changed entirely. At the end of my first year, I was designated as a co-director of SIG’s Civic Engagement and Community Service committee. The focus that year: boosting turnout in the midterms. Our committee would become a cornerstone of the campus-wide StanfordVotes effort.
I was exhilarated by the idea of making real change in both the Stanford community and nationwide, but I was also daunted by the challenge of starting something completely new without very many guidelines. However, my co-director Christina and I decided to approach building StanfordVotes as an opportunity to express creativity. As I was spending my whole summer working on congressional and state campaigns in Upstate New York, I learned the value of grassroots organizing, agility, and being different.
When we got to campus that fall, the election was only about a month and a half away. That meant that we had to move quickly and try whatever we could. We immediately got to work, organizing our over 100 “civic engagement volunteers.” We tabled in White Plaza, showed up to events across campus to register voters, handed out candy on Halloween outside the biggest lectures after class, and offered resources—informational and material—to anybody that needed them.
Two of our most successful events were “Display of Democracy” and “Party at the Post Office.” The former was a massive canvas that we built and set up in White Plaza that said “Democracy matters to me because….” at the top. We offered passersby Post-Its and asked them if they would respond to the prompt and paste it onto the wall. By the end of the day, what started as a blank white piece of drywall turned into a collage of encouraging notes about the importance of civic participation and freedom.
The “Party at the Post Office” was an event that we hosted to encourage Stanford students to apply for absentee ballots and/or mail them in. We set up tables, computers, printers, and—importantly—speakers in White Plaza outside the campus post office and turned it into one massive party. There was dancing, free In-N-Out, free postage, free printing, a free notary on-site, and free advice for anyone struggling to navigate the voting process. It was a huge hit, and to this day, is one of my favorite memories. Being able to watch so many young people use their voices to shape our country—regardless of party affiliation or political ideology—was extremely moving. I am proud to have played even a small role in facilitating that.
In a month and a half, the StanfordVotes team helped over 2,200 members of the Stanford community register for TurboVote, and the voter turnout rate increased by approximately 150%. StanfordVotes has only grown since then and continued to make meaningful change, such as the highly successful implementation of a civic engagement enrollment hold on Axess and the campaign for a “Day of Civic Service” on Election Day.
Since its inception, the initiative has not only been strengthened by the student leaders and volunteers, but supportive faculty, staff, and institutions across campus—ensuring continuity for years to come. I am in awe of what StanfordVotes has become, and I cannot wait to see what comes next.