Jacqueline Smith-Mason, Ph.D. and Matt Tessema each holding V C U Votes signs encouraging people to vote.
As co-chairs of VCU Votes, Jacqueline Smith-Mason, Ph.D., and Matt Tessema are helping the VCU community understand the voting process and how to safely participate in an election made complicated by the coronavirus. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

‘Have a plan’: VCU Votes co-chairs answer questions about voting amid the pandemic

Whether you vote early, in person or by mail, the key is to make a plan and follow through on it — “decide that you’re going to vote, no matter what.”

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Election Day is fast approaching and voters in Virginia have already started casting ballots for president, Congress, local offices and two proposed constitutional amendments, including one to create a bipartisan redistricting commission.

At Virginia Commonwealth University, VCU Votes — a network of VCU students, faculty and staff dedicated to promoting voter engagement on campus — is working hard to answer questions and help the VCU community navigate the voting process amid COVID-19. 

Leading the VCU Votes Advisory Council are co-chairs Matt Tessema, a student in the Honors College, a senior journalism major in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences, and an Andrew Goodman Foundation Vote Everywhere ambassador; and Jacqueline Smith-Mason, Ph.D., senior associate dean and director of academic and faculty affairs in the Honors College.

Tessema and Smith-Mason spoke with VCU News to answer key questions about the upcoming election and explain what’s behind VCU’s culture of voting.

What exactly is VCU Votes and what is the group aiming to achieve? 

Tessema: VCU Votes is trying to get our campus more civically engaged. VCU is already one of the more civically engaged campuses in Virginia and also in the nation. But [we’re trying] even more to give tools to students so they can vote, get registered to vote and be able to learn more about the candidates. Also, we’re providing outlets on social media for people to follow and get important information about voting and the election.

As we head to Election Day, what are the most important things VCU Votes wants the community to know about voting and this election?

Tessema: We want to make sure that everybody knows that voting is still very much going on [despite the pandemic] and it’s still a safe thing you can do. And it’s still a process that is complicated just because of how it’s always been, but it’s something that you can figure out. And you’re only a question away from asking anybody [for help], but especially us, VCU Votes. You can ask us how you can register, how you can be civically engaged, and what exactly you have to do to vote in person by mail or early. We want to make sure everybody knows how to vote, that it’s safe, and how to [get over] any roadblocks you might encounter.

Smith-Mason: I believe the most important message is: Have a voting plan. We know that early voting has begun. We know that we can request absentee ballots. We know that we can vote in person. Everyone needs to decide which way they plan to vote, and make a plan to do that.

If you decide that you want to vote on Election Day, we know that we’re in a pandemic so make sure you have your personal protective equipment. The lines may be long, for example, so make sure that you have all the necessary things to make yourself comfortable if you have to stand in line for a long time. If you’re planning to request an absentee ballot, do it now, do not wait. Everyone’s been watching the news, we know that there’s a lot going on in terms of the postal service and we know that registrars’ offices will be overwhelmed with absentee ballots. So start early and have a plan.

An envelope is placed into a box with "VOTE" on its side.
Amid the pandemic, people will be voting early, in-person on Election Day and by mail. "I believe the most important message is: Have a voting plan," Jacqueline Smith-Mason said. (Getty Images)

For a member of the VCU community who might be on the fence about participating in the election, what would you say to encourage them to register and cast a ballot?

Smith-Mason: Democracy is not a spectator sport. We don’t have time to be on the fence. If you are not participating in the process, you shouldn’t complain.

I think you need to think about what is your “why,” and what I mean by that, for me, my “why” is that I know that there have been many people who have fought throughout history for me to have the right to vote. So that’s my “why.” 

I’m asking other individuals to think about their “why,” what motivates them to get out and vote and be concerned about the health and vitality of our democracy. It might be racial injustice. It could be the environment. It could be the digital divide — you know, as we’ve moved to remote learning, we found that many of our students, for example, are facing challenges and a lot of that has to do with the digital divide. We know in general that our students have a lot of insecurities — whether that’s food insecurity, housing insecurity. So thinking about those things that resonate with us in our daily lives should encourage us and motivate us to get out to vote. 

And also, I know a lot of members of our community, students and faculty, have been out protesting in respect to racial injustice and social injustices in general. An extension of protest is going to the ballot box and casting your ballot.

Tessema: If you pay taxes, if you’re involved in the community, you — along with everybody else — have an investment in our government and the way that it operates. If you are going to sit out of an election, this is not the one to do it. This is a very important election. The country is in a unique moment. It’s very divided. If you want to live in this country for the next four years, and you want to be at peace with what’s going on, you have to make your opinion stated at the polls. 

In every election, they always say that this election coming up is the most important. But in my lifetime at least — I’m 20 years old — this is definitely the most important election I’ve ever seen. 

How has the pandemic affected the work of VCU Votes? 

Tessema: Well, a lot. [If not for COVID-19], this campus would be jumping, it’d be very active at this time. With Election Day getting closer, there would be things going on at the Compass, there would be tabling going on, there would be canvassing going on, people knocking on doors. But we can’t do any of that because we have to follow social distancing guidelines so we can keep our school safe. We cannot interact with everybody in person, we can’t hand out pizza, cookies or candy, we can’t be out there on the Compass helping people get registered. We can’t do any of that this year.

This year, we’re having to do more on social media, and that’s been working pretty well for us too, but it’s really changed [how we operate] because we had a lot of plans for in-person [activities].

Important fall 2020 dates

Oct. 13:
Deadline to register to vote, or update existing registration.

Oct. 20: Recommended deadline for mailing absentee ballots.

Oct. 23 by 5 p.m.: Deadline to request an absentee ballot (NOTE: Requesting and mailing a ballot well ahead of this due date will ensure it is received in time and counted).

Now through Oct. 31: Early in-person voting: Check for your registrar location and scheduled hours.

Nov. 3: Election Day

This year, there will be two polling locations on campus, at the Institute for Contemporary Art and University Student Commons. Where should VCU voters go to confirm where they should vote? 

Tessema: The VCU Votes website has great information in a student-friendly user interface. Obviously the information can be found on the Department of Elections website too, but the VCU Votes website is made with college students in mind. I encourage VCU students to check out our website to get answers to their questions about the election and voting this year.

In the past several elections, voter turnout among VCU students has been significantly higher than the national average for colleges and universities. Why do you think that is?

Smith-Mason: I think part of it — we don’t know the whole answer to that — but part of it is the culture at VCU, [supported by] groups such as VCU Votes.

Service learning, I think, also plays a role in that. Getting students out in our community to learn about some of the inequalities that occur in our community [leads to] students saying, “I really do have an interest in these particular issues and one way I can express my concern and help to shape public policy is through voting.”

Also through our curriculum, such as with the VCU Votes class [being held this semester]. And if we think about VCU’s Common Book — not only the Common Book that we have for this year, but [also] in the past. Of course, this year we have “One Person, No Vote.” These are all ways that we are educating and engaging our students and it’s helping them see their role as active citizens, which I think contributes to the high voter turnout.

Certainly, in addition, I think having a polling location on campus also helps because that’s another way that makes voting visible and students can see voting being applicable to them.

Tessema: It’s just the nature of this school. VCU is a school that is really civically engaged. Maybe part of it is VCU being in a city that is also civically engaged. I think that diversity as a whole in the city and that diversity as a whole at VCU translates to people who want to be involved in what’s going on in their government, people who want social justice and want the government and those who run this country to reflect actual people. There has been a culture of voting that has been built into VCU for quite a number of years now. 

An image collage of social media posts from V C U Votes.
A collage of social media posts from VCU Votes, a network of VCU students, faculty and staff that promotes voter engagement on campus.

There’s a lot of misinformation out there about voting this year. Has VCU Votes encountered any common misunderstandings about voting and the election?

Tessema: I haven’t been aware of too many misconceptions, but I do presentations in classes and some of the students I’ve talked to are afraid of how complicated it’ll be to vote and whether the effort will be worth it. Voting, like anything else during these times, probably takes a little bit more work and is a little more complicated. So I’m trying to send the message that, yes, voting is still going on, it’s important to do it, it’s safe and it’s worth it.

You can vote early so you don’t have to wait in as long of a line. You can get a mail-in ballot and send that in or drop it off at a drop box if you don’t want to rely on the post office.  

I guess if there was one misconception, it’s that: If I take a mail-in ballot to the post office, how do I know it’s going to get there? The answer to that is, first of all, you can trust that ballot will get there safely, especially if you send it early.  

But if you’re worried, you can [request an absentee ballot], fill it out and drop it off at your city hall or local registrar’s office and that way you’ll know it’s been received.  

Or, if you send it by mail, there’s also now a ballot tracking [function] on the Department of Elections website. You can literally track your ballot like an Amazon package.

Smith-Mason: I think a major issue is that the voting information this year is constantly changing. That’s frustrating for everybody, not just students. That’s something we can think about as being a barrier or a challenge, but what I want to say to students and everyone is to try to just stay up to date as much as possible with the information and make your voting plan. Decide that you’re going to vote, no matter what.

For example, if we know the postal service is going to be slow, then request an absentee ballot early, and once we get it, fill it out, put it in the mail or put it in the drop box.

With so much uncertainty and anxiety surrounding this election, what are ways that members of the VCU community could help or volunteer? 

Smith-Mason: First, we want to encourage students in particular to sign up to be poll workers. We’re in the pandemic and quite often poll workers are retired individuals, older individuals who may be more susceptible to the COVID-19 virus. We don’t want to expose anyone to the virus, but I do think encouraging students to think about becoming a poll worker is important. 

Second, share information with friends and family and encourage others to vote. Again, we’re in a pandemic and everyone must do what’s most comfortable for them, but if you know someone who needs a ride to the polls, give them a ride. All the things that we would have done pre-pandemic [are still important], but now we need to adjust and still do those same things during the pandemic, but do them in a way that keeps us safe.

Tessema: I personally tell everybody, “Don’t go to the polls alone.” If you’re going to the polls, go with your friends. Keep your friends accountable — make sure that your one friend who is not really tuned in that much, make sure they’re registered to vote and make sure they vote.

And make sure that the people in your life — parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles — make sure that they’re all registered to vote. Help them if you can, and make sure they show up and vote. Because if we all hold each other accountable, we can have a great turnout.