CMU Students Set New Voting Trends
By Ann Lyon RitchieMedia Inquiries
Carnegie Mellon University's Divyansh Kaushik had an idea. The president of the Graduate Student Assembly and a doctoral student in the Language Technologies Institute, wanted to bring students together to increase election participation.
"At GSA, we were already working on political issues and democratic engagement on Capitol Hill, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. It was natural for us to take on that responsibility," Kaushik said.
The work was recognized. Kaushik earned a standout student award from the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, and CMU received a gold seal for achieving 70%-79% voter participation this past presidential election.
Kaushik said the award is a reflection of the efforts made across the university.
"Every student who registered or told a fellow student to please register to vote or please go vote, it's an award for them. It's a recognition of all the great work all of these students put in," Kaushik said.
Though college-aged students typically have low voting rates and represent a small share of the electorate, the student voting rate at CMU rose 8.8 points to 70.6% in the 2020 presidential election year, compared to 2016. More than 800 CMU students newly registered to vote in the 2020 election.
"As GSA president, Divyansh has been a force for good not just on CMU's campus but also nationally," said Rick Siger, senior advisor to the president for economic development and community engagement at CMU. "His efforts to increase engagement in the electoral process stand out as the kind of leadership we need at a time when our country is facing critical challenges. His advocacy on a broad set of issues impacting higher education — including voter advocacy and civic participation — has resulted in a more engaged and informed CMU community among our students, faculty and staff."
GSA received grants from the Students Learn Students Vote Coalition in 2019 for advertising voter registration on social media and in 2020 to register CMU students as poll workers. The GSA External Affairs committee recruited 50 students to work at Allegheny County elections, which were understaffed due to the pandemic.
Many students registered through cmu.turbovote.org after the university responded to student requests for the Turbo Vote subscription. The Office of Student Leadership, Involvement and Civic Engagement (SLICE) also placed a Turbo Vote banner on Canvas linking students to voter registration resources.
Abigail Macy, a senior majoring in violin performance and member of Women in Politics at CMU, joined a coalition of politically minded student organizations to host presidential debate watch parties online using Discord.
"Emotions were very high in the last election, so it was really important to us to have a space that felt comfortable and safe for people to process the debates and discuss them," Macy said.
Macy now chairs CMU Votes, a newly formed organization to drive civic engagement.
"When students came together to form CMU Votes, they brought their social and academic networks and were able to use their influence to promote voter registration within those populations," said Sam Waltemeyer, interim associate director and housefellow at SLICE and 2020 chair of CMU's Voter Engagement Committee.
"Politicians don't necessarily have the same motivations to choose policies that benefit us, and so I think it's really important that we get our voice out there," Macy said.
The efforts led by Kaushik, Macy and others brought the university community together, despite the pandemic, and the momentum continues to build.
Every voice matters to Kaushik, who can cite elections won by a few hundred ballots or a single vote. CMU's research ecosystem initially attracted him for his master's degree, but he stayed to earn a Ph.D. due to the personal connections he had made.
Kaushik said he firmly believes CMU students can attain a voting rate over 90% of eligible voters.
"We're now working with all of the stakeholders, whether that is the president's office, provost's office, SLICE, or the Faculty Senate." Kaushik said. "I think that anything is possible."