EMU students work to ensure peers know their voting rights in advance of 2024 elections

Students, staff, and faculty at Eastern Michigan University (EMU) are determined to ensure that EMU's student community knows what it means to participate in voting.
At the end of 2023, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed several bills to improve election efficiency, expand voter registration options, and protect elections as the presidential election approaches this November. While this historic legislative action will hopefully mean improved elections statewide, students, staff, and faculty at Eastern Michigan University (EMU) are determined to ensure that EMU's student community knows what it means to participate in voting.

Part of the package of state bills included moving Michigan’s primary election date three weeks earlier, to Feb. 27, in a move to increase accessibility to the polls. But the change in date also means that some EMU students may now have difficulty voting at their usual polling place at the Honors College, as the new primary date is during the school’s spring break. Students like Naomi Barbour, a junior majoring in political science and public law, are focusing on helping students not only get registered to vote, but inform them of new voting options they can now access. 

"What’s really inspired me is that Michigan actually had one of the highest increases in young voters registering to vote in 2022 compared to previous cycles and other states," Barbour says. "That really got me so excited that student participation was not only on the rise but continuing to increase."

In 2023, Barbour acted as EMU's liaison to the state's Collegiate Student Advisory Task Force (CSATF) and was affiliated with the nonprofit Campus Vote Project (CVP). Both groups held conversations throughout the year about protecting voters’ rights in Michigan, and ultimately many of the concerns raised in those conversations were addressed through the state's election legislation package. Barbour says the new policies will positively affect not just students, but voters in general.

"The package addressed issues the task force brought forward, but also did other things to protect official elections, like controlling the ability of AI to influence voting, which we didn’t think about in the task force, but we’re glad the governor thought of it," she says.
Engage @ EMU Voter Coalition member Lamarr Mitchell.
Though Barbour is no longer EMU’s liaison for CSATF, she is still actively doing election-related work on campus, such as participating in tabling events to get students registered to vote. She's also focusing on educating students on voter IDs, with future plans for voter ID clinics on campus to ensure first-time voters "know their rights for voter identification" and what forms of ID they can or can’t use to vote.

EMU freshmen Jason Folk has taken Barbour’s place as CSATF liaison. In addition to his work with the task force and CVP, he's formed a close relationship with the Engage @ EMU office and a CVP and Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education initiative known as Voter Friendly Campus (VFC). EMU was designated a Voter Friendly Campus last year, joining over 200 other college campuses throughout the country.

"Part of VFC is turning in an action plan to make voting more accessible," Folk says. "Our action plan involves tabling and getting people registered, and we’re currently looking at doing voting drives throughout campus."

While EMU’s VFC status highlights the many ways students, staff, and faculty are making voting and voting education more accessible to the EMU community, Folk says he and the Engage office are also working on their own initiative to inform students of their rights while also getting them excited about voting.

"So many things happen in college. It's easy for voting to be the last thing on your mind," Folk says. "We want to create a sort of force on campus to show that everyone should vote and that everyone on campus supports voting."

This project, called the Engage @ EMU Voter Coalition, is being overseen by Engage @ EMU Director Jessica "Decky" Alexander, Graduate Assistant Lamarr Mitchell, and Communications and Project Manager Maggie Whittemore. Mitchell says the coalition is a way to inform not just students, but staff and faculty as well.
Engage @ EMU Director Jessica "Decky" Alexander.
"We don’t want voting to be a chore. We want it to seem like something we want to do instead of have to do," Mitchell says. "We want to increase awareness on campus on how to register, what the process looks like, and help make our campus more knowledgeable about who is running and their policies."

Whittemore adds that while coalition members are still being finalized, other voting-related efforts are in the works at the Engage office.

"We got training to register students to vote, and we’re planning on passing along that training to our student volunteers as well to work at lobby tables to register students," she says.

Alexander highlights Engage’s work with CVP, which provided the registration training Whittemore mentions. She also says that, with primaries taking place during EMU’s spring break, much of the Engage office's current voting education work involves ensuring that students know their voting options come the primaries next month.

"We’re promoting absentee a lot this year since students won’t be on campus or will have gone home for break," Alexander says. "We’ve had a very strong turnout in the past, though."
Engage @ EMU Voter Coalition member Maggie Whittemore.
While Alexander and the rest of the Engage office’s staff understand the importance of the primaries, Alexander says more of their voting education efforts are tailored to the presidential election in November. The focus during the primaries is on getting first-time voters registered. Alexander says EMU is also working with the Ypsilanti’s city clerk office to make sure the local voting information being imparted onto students is up to date.

"The biggest thing for us is this is the first year in Michigan we have early voting, and where those early voting options are in Ypsi," Alexander says. "We’ll be sending out correspondence to all of campus to learn more about that in addition to our lobby tables."

Folk, Mitchell, and Whittemore all emphasize that EMU's voting education efforts are nonpartisan, and that they are concerned with students voting rather than with who they vote for. 

"If we don't express our opinions, someone else will," Folk says. "It’s important to appreciate the rights we have, and that we use that right."
Engage @ EMU Voter Coalition members Maggie Whittemore, Decky Alexander, and Lamarr Mitchell.
"It’s important these students are getting out there and voting for what they think is right," Mitchell says. "[For] the people saying their vote doesn’t matter, it does. Voting is one way to take a small step toward the future that we want to see."

Whether EMU students are voting absentee, on one of Washtenaw County’s early voting dates, or in person on Election Day, they will have numerous opportunities to get informed on the voting process while surrounded by an enthusiastic community of peers, faculty, and staff. For more information on EMU’s voting work on campus, visit the Engage office’s website. More information on upcoming voting-related events will also be available through Engage’s website and through EMU's EagleApp.

"Our votes are very critical," Barbour says. "It is crucial to have our voice be heard and be a part of the process."

Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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