Bison Votes encourages political participation

Nicole Yeager and Libby Darrell

Throughout this election season, Bison Votes, a student-led group, has been actively working to spread the word about the importance of voting; inform students about the two candidates, their parties and what policies they bring to the table; and share general resources and provide assistance in all ways — all from the onset of the semester right up to election day.

Bison Votes is the first campus-wide organization, based out of the University’s Office of Civic Engagement, that attempted to combine aspects of the different departments and perspectives in order to engage students, researchers, planners and administrators as well as the local community. According to the University’s 2020 Action Plan, the mission of this group is to increase the University’s electoral participation by 10% and aid the larger community’s understanding about the election process, voting details and candidate profiles. Furthermore, they hope to increase community engagement, specifically as it relates to citizens’ civic duty to vote.

The leadership team is overseen by Director of the Office of Civic Engagement Theresa Cusimano and is led by Helen Lauterbach ’21, Paul Danenberg ’23, Emily Goldman ’22, Abby Kapp ’21, Matthew Paddock ’24 and Bethany Johnson ’21, along with other student members.

I had actually helped to start the Bison Votes plan before [the coronavirus pandemic] last spring. It began with the All In Democracy Challenge and it eventually grew to what we know as Bison Votes today,” Goldman said of the group’s formation. 

As an organization, Bison Votes collaborates with the University’s political science department, Campus Activities & Programs (CAP), Bucknell Student Government (BSG), College Democrats, Independents and Republicans. Within the local community, they work with the League of Women Voters, the Conflict Mediation Center, Secretary of State, County Elections Board, candidates, The Hub and Green New Deal Lewisburg, among many others. According to the University’s Action Plan for this year, Bison Votes made additional efforts to engage and advertise their cause through Bucky the Bison mascot, as well as educating students about the organization during programs such as New Student Orientation.

In partnership with the offices of Equity and Inclusive Excellence and the Griot Institute, Bison Votes began their efforts with a campus and community-wide Zoom meeting in September to educate students about the electoral process, specifically warning about the naked ballot challenges that are somewhat unique in Pennsylvania. Their main feat was providing the campus with TurboVote, a website that assists individuals in figuring out what they need to register to vote, how to register and the following steps that need to be taken to get their vote in. Members of Bison Votes promoted this tool through tabling, social media posts and posters with QR codes scattered around campus. As a result, Bison Votes was able to register 200 students who requested assistance and logged almost 800 students on to the University’s TurboVote.

We partnered with Turbo Vote to ensure an easy, fast and safe registration process. On a related note, we educated students on how PA is a swing state. This meant many students felt that their partisan voice was the majority at home and that their vote would matter more in PA. Turbo Vote allowed these students to register in PA,” Goldman said.

In particular, Bison Votes helped students who struggled with voter registration online, were unable to upload their signatures or were not identified in the Pennsylvania database with their social security numbers. They also helped students in isolation and quarantine request emergency ballots, as well as partnered with the Athletics Department at the University, increasing voter registration by approximately 1,000. 

The Bison Votes team also presented themselves as individual resources by readily answering text messages and emails as well as accepting office visits. Additionally, they hosted voter-education events over Zoom, walked people to the county election office and drove some to their polling locations. 

“Members of the office and many other students reached out to take on the role of residence hall ‘captain,’ answering questions their fellow hallmates had and making sure as many people as possible were ready to vote,” Paddock said. He went on to describe how they “employed the use of social media outlets and email blasts to keep reminding the student body to get out and effectuate positive change through the democratic process.”

The group also created “I Voted” stickers to hand out to students. “I knew that this was a first voting election for many students and I thought it would be special for students to be able to take a souvenir home that they voted at college,” Goldman, who came up with the idea, said. 

The student members of Bison Votes promote the importance of political engagement, especially for University students. “I think it is imperative for college students to vote because it is our future ahead of us; and the decisions we make now, including voting, impacts that future and the future of the younger generations after us,” Johnson said. “We are an educated group of young adults who should exercise our right to vote even when it feels like it won’t make a difference and even when it feels pointless.”

“The right to vote is an essential part of our American democracy. Even on a small scale, voting allows individuals to possess a voice, making crystal clear the opinions, desires and policy initiatives of the American public to representatives in government,” Paddock said.

Though the stakes are high, Bison Votes volunteers are confident that their contributions have made an impact. “It has been a stressful 24 hours, just waiting for the official results and reflecting on what the results will mean for the world as we know it. Despite what happens, I feel comfort just knowing that my generation is composed of intelligent individuals who are willing to raise their voices against injustice and hatred without shame,” Johnson said.

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