Colgate Employs Creative Strategies to Strengthen Civic Engagement in 2020 

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By Lauren Hutton ’21 and Celine Turkyilmaz ’21

In an election year with historic voter turnout, Colgate University organizations mobilized to help register new voters, encourage students to vote in Madison County, and create easy access to polling sites.

One way civic engagement was supported was through the second iteration of an Election Day March to the Polls. Founded by the Colgate College Democrats in 2018 for the midterm elections, the event allows students, faculty, and staff registered to vote in Madison County to march from the O’Connor Campus Center to the Hamilton Public Library polling site to cast their votes. 

Reed Cleland, chair of Colgate’s College Democrats, ensured the event’s successful organization. It was important for him to make the march fully nonpartisan and simplify the voting process for all voters.  

“I have never believed voting to be a partisan action. It is the most powerful form of free speech that we have in this country,” Cleland said. “It was important for those of us at Colgate to model that to the rest of the world.” 

In this spirit, the march was co-sponsored by the Colgate College Republicans, Students for Environmental Action, Democracy Matters, and Mabel Dart Colegrove Commons. Representatives from the sponsoring organizations led a march at 9 a.m., 12 p.m., and 5 p.m. While the 2018 March boasted more than 200 attendees, COVID-19 saw many students turn to mail-in voting and avoid gatherings like the march.

“We kept the tradition going through the most unpredictable of times so that future generations of Raiders can continue it,” Cleland said. 

Alongside limiting groups to 25 students and requiring masks and distancing at the march, the College Democrats’ pre-election day initiatives also adapted because of the pandemic. They created an email response system that allowed students to submit questions about voting that couldn’t be answered face-to-face, held a virtual town hall with Congressman Anthony Brindisi, and distributed voter registration forms to residence halls and common rooms across campus. Their efforts helped 233 students register to vote in Hamilton. 

Many organizations on campus similarly found creative ways to comply with health and safety restrictions while still encouraging voter turnout. The Colgate Republicans held weekly phone banks to encourage voter turnout on behalf of former Congressional Rep. Claudia Tenney, while the Colgate Vote Project organized and advertised Election Day transportation. 

Partnering with First Transit and the Office of Communications, the Colgate Vote Project bolstered accessibility to the local polling station at Hamilton Public Library. An additional cruiser stop supplemented traditional routes from the apartments, townhouses, and up the hill, explained co-president Eliza Lloyd ’22. 

“Many of the students registered in Madison County are on campus this fall,” she said. “So, this Election Day addition to the cruiser schedule played an important role in making voting attainable for these students.”

The Colgate Vote Project also focused on educating students about the voting process, Lloyd noted. “Prior to Election day, we ran multiple campaigns in hopes of reaching as many students as possible, both on campus and at home,” she said. “We held a National Voter Registration Day phone drive; made and shared posters around campus; worked with the athletics department to achieve 100% student-athlete registration; and hosted other events.” 

For Lloyd, heightened political activism on campus mirrors the nationwide record-breaking voter turnout. “I hope that young people who turned out feel empowered by their vote and continue to prioritize voting and being engaged in the democratic process,” she said. 

With Democracy Matters focusing on improving vote-by-mail education, the Colgate Vote Project providing free stamps and envelopes for ballots, professors cancelling class on Nov. 3, and ensuring students had voting strategies, higher voter turnouts in Madison County this year reflected a team effort from various organizations and individuals on campus.