A photo of a man at a voting booth.
Students in a VCU Votes class recently held an event to familiarize students with the voting process. (Photo by Thomas Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

A ‘VCU Votes’ class is organizing an array of activities on campus to encourage student voter participation

Students in political science course are familiarizing first-time voters with the process, securing pledges to cast ballots and more.

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On a recent evening at the West Grace North residence hall, Virginia Commonwealth University students dropped by for a slice of pizza, a chance to win a Starbucks gift card and the opportunity to gain experience with voting.

Organized by students in a VCU Votes class this fall, the “Get Prepared to Vote!” event gave first-time student voters a chance to familiarize themselves with the voting process ahead of the Nov. 7 elections, in which voters will cast ballots for all seats in the Virginia General Assembly, as well as local offices and ballot initiatives.

“VCU students [should] exercise our right to vote because it's our political voice and our responsibility to shape and cultivate our community through who or what we elect,” said Grace St. Germain, a senior political science major in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “If VCU students don't vote, how can our opinions or values be actually heard and implemented?”

St. Germain and classmates Alex Campbell and Lucie Carberry organized the event. It was one of numerous activities led by students in the VCU Votes course, taught by political science professors Amanda Wintersieck, Ph.D., and Alexandra Reckendorf, Ph.D., to encourage student voter participation.

The students are aiming to address certain obstacles to student voting, such as procrastination and embarrassment about not knowing how to vote, as well lower voting participation rates among student athletes, first-generation college students and students who are first-generation U.S. citizens.

Among the activities: organizing a group trip for students to vote early; providing information and encouraging students to sign a “pledge to vote” outside James Branch Cabell Library; and a voting party— or “varty” — on Election Day.

The VCU Votes course combines problem-based, service-based and team-based learning approaches to recontextualize learning about civic life in light of real-world experiences. The course is supported by the College of Humanities and Sciences, the Department of Political Science and the Institute for Democracy, Pluralism and Community Empowerment, which is led by Wintersieck. The students’ projects are additionally supported by VCU Votes, a nonpartisan initiative of VCU students, faculty and staff focused on voter engagement, and the League of Women Voters.

A photo of people standing in line at a polling place.
In addition to the simulated voting event, the students are also organizing a group trip for students to vote early, tabling events on campus to encourage students to sign a “pledge to vote” and more. (Photo by Thomas Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Voter engagement among VCU students has been historically high, with VCU Votes helping more than 15,000 students register since the initiative launched in 2012. VCU Votes has also been recognized by the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge for achieving a student voting rate of over 50%.

Earlier this year, VCU Votes was awarded a top National Association of Student Personnel Administrators Excellence Award for its commitment to supporting VCU students being active and engaged citizens.

Heading into the upcoming election, Reckendorf said she would like VCU students to know that they should feel empowered to vote even if they don’t feel perfectly informed about all the issues or candidates.

“The truth is, in a two-party system where the two parties have very different platforms on a number of important issues, it’s pretty easy to know which party — and by extension, which candidate — you should vote for,” she said. “So stop worrying about whether you know ‘enough,’ and stop buying into the idea that older generations necessarily know any more than you do. We often don’t! And we certainly don’t always have your interests in mind when stepping into the voting booth. But we’re still going to show up, so you should, too!”

Reckendorf added that students should not feel like it’s “selling out” to vote for an imperfect candidate; it’s just politics.

“One of the candidates is going to win whether you vote or not, so you might as well pick the one that most closely aligns with your values, interests and priorities,” she said. “After all, you’re not exempt from the political consequences of an election just because you failed to show up on Election Day.”

For details about events, ways to get involved and information on the upcoming election, follow @vcuinthebooth on Instagram, Wintersieck said. “Election Day is Nov. 7,” she said. “Do you have a plan to vote?”