Carnegie Mellon University
September 29, 2020

New Student Coalition Drives Civic Engagement

CMU Votes will host debate watch parties online throughout presidential election

By Michael Henninger

Jocelyn Duffy
  • Associate Dean for Communications, MCS
Before COVID-19, multiple student organizations at Carnegie Mellon University followed the U.S. presidential primaries, viewing them through the lens of the issues they cared about most. Groups like the Roosevelt Institute and Sustainable Earth hosted debate watch parties with food, games and good company to spur discussion and help students decide how to complete their ballots.

As those student organizations became aware of each others' watch parties, they started combining efforts and drawing larger audiences. Those groups have announced a new coalition called CMU Votes, which, in light of the pandemic, will host online debate watch parties throughout the 2020 presidential election, starting Sept. 29.

Jacob Feldgoise, chapter co-president for the Roosevelt Institute, one of the founding organizations of CMU Votes and a senior majoring in policy and management; science, technology and public policy; and minoring in Chinese, said he hopes this is a new and fun way for students to engage in the election process.

"Right now, it's not possible to do a lot of traditional civic engagement activities," Feldgoise said. "It's not the most responsible thing to get a bunch of people together to go knock on doors for a candidate during the pandemic. Hopefully these watch parties will bring something unique to the table."

CMU Votes will use Discord to host the watch parties. They will be open to anyone with a Carnegie Mellon affiliation. The events will be moderated and a code of conduct will be enforced. There will be multiple channels focused on individual topic areas — like immigration or education policy — where students can go to discuss specific issues.
"The political climate in the U.S. frustrates me. There's so much partisanship and not a lot of productive discussion behind it. It should be an open discussion about ideas." — Jenna Stanislaw
The student-run coalition has found a partner in CMU's Office of Student Leadership, Involvement, and Civic Engagement (SLICE), which has its own non-partisan Voting Engagement Committee.

"While we can create ways to show students how to get involved in the process as a university, research shows that message is much more powerful when it comes from a friend or fellow student," said Sam Waltemeyer, assistant director of SLICE. "This group of students is very reflective of CMU. They asked for the tools and the avenue to build something and took it from there."

Waltemeyer, who sits in on CMU Votes' planning meetings, appreciates their non-partisan approach to student engagement.

"One of the coolest things these students have done is draw different perspectives to their mission," Waltemeyer said. "We struggle as a country with civil discourse. They see that and actively work to have a collection of diverse voices in the discussion."

Jenna Stanislaw, the president of Sustainable Earth, one of the founding organizations behind CMU Votes, agrees on the importance of inclusive dialogue throughout the election process.

"The political climate in the U.S. frustrates me. There's so much partisanship and not a lot of productive discussion behind it," Stanislaw said. "It should be an open discussion about ideas. It's not meant to be attacking any one person or their beliefs. I'm glad CMU Votes is trying to be as inclusive as we can."

Stanislaw is a junior majoring in biological sciences. Her organization, Sustainable Earth, chose to have politics as a theme last year, focusing on how policy can affect the environment.

"Taking care of the environment is about producing a society that's sustainable and equitable for all people, and that includes promoting political involvement," Stanislaw said. "These watch parties create a lot of discourse among different organizations, and even after the election, we want to continue to promote that."