Until this semester, Nicholas Maurer didn’t think he should be allowed to vote, because he didn’t believe he helped his community enough. Maurer is 18, going on 19, and one of many young voters who declined to register or vote in elections. Then Maurer took Marsha Olson’s Fundamentals of Oral Communication, COMM 111 class, and he said he finally felt like he deserved the right to vote.
“I felt like at the time, because I didn’t work personally, I wasn’t contributing to the world by helping society out,” Maurer said. “For myself I didn’t feel I should vote until I was contributing something myself.”
For Maurer, that contribution came in the form of voter registration stations he did in his COMM 111 class. Maurer, and other students have said this class helps them feel engaged with politics, partly because they participate in voter engagement and registration stations. Since starting the registration stations, Olson said her classes have registered around 350 people on campus. Olson has been running voter engagement stations for the last three semesters, and she said their goal is to get college students, young voters who are typically absent at the polls, to register to vote.
“One of the big things we noticed on campus is there are no registration drives, you can register to vote, but it is not very well publicized,” Olson said. “One of the ways to get people to register, if it is not on their radar, is to put it on their radar.”
Bringing awareness to upcoming elections is also a goal of the voter registration stations. For the fall semester of 2016 most students were aware of the Presidential elections, but Olson believes local elections, like the Anchorage Municipality election that happened the first week of April, are even more important elections to bring awareness to.
Olson said she has her COMM 111 students run the voter registration stations so that they can become more involved in the process, but also so that they learn how to use their voice, a skill she believes is her job to teach in COMM 111. Olson got the initial inspiration from the musical, ‘Hamilton,‘ and the quote “If you stand for nothing Burr, what will you fall for?”
“My whole job is teaching people to find their voice, I teach oral communication, I want people to be able to stand up, whether it is politically or personally, and [the quote] was really inspiring to me and made me feel like there had to be something we could be doing to encourage students to use their voice,” Olson said. “At the same time, I had a couple of students in class who made some comments about tuition increases, and health care costs, they were side comments they had made… but it resonated with me because what it showed was that their voice wasn’t being heard.”
Since starting the voter registration project, Olson has been able to see her own students, students like Maurer register and become more informed about political issues. Olson said her best success story to date was a woman from her first semester conducting the project.
“She registered and voted for the first time in the April election last year, which is a municipal election,” Olson said. “She had never voted before, and she was an immigrant to the country so she wasn’t born in the U.S. Although she was a citizen, she had never registered, and I think she was relatively new. The more we talked about it in class, the more she researched, the more important she realized that it was.”
Through her research, Olson’s student realized what role voting in elections played in citizenship.
“She came up to me right before the election last year and said, ‘You know I had no idea this was so significant a part of being a citizen and this was my duty. I have already researched every candidate and I know who I am going to vote for, and I researched the ballot measures, and I even told my husband that he has to vote this year, because he hasn’t been voting either. We talked about who we should be voting for and we’re going to go and bring our kid with us,’” Olson said.
As a student participating in the voter registration stations, Maurer said he couldn’t tell people to vote without being a registered voter himself.
“Right now, just by being able to get out there and try to help people to register to vote and to be working and serving myself, kind of becoming a more responsible adult– I felt like I was sort of contributing more around me,” Maurer said. “I feel like if I am going to be helping people to register to vote, then I should be doing my part as well.”
Rea Barcelon, sophomore, was also in Olson’s COMM 111 class, and she said the impact of her voter registration booth this spring was a positive one.
“I felt like it was pretty important, like not enough people do, a lot of people do want younger people to [go vote] but she’s actually putting in action to,” Barcelon said. “Putting into action is really important, because if no one is going to do anything about it, then nothing is going to really change. At least she’s trying to get it out there for her classes.”
Olson said she plans to continue the voter registration stations but that the stations will evolve to be more education based, and less focused on registration because of a ballot measure that passed last fall to tie signing up for the PFD and voter registration together. Overall, Olson has seen her voter registrations, and the research and work students in her classes do leading up to the stations, succeed in their goal of registering members of the UAA community and teaching her COMM 111 students to use their voice.