by Adria Walker
October 8 is the last day for U.S. citizens aged 18 and older to register to vote in the upcoming November election—an election that is particularly important because it determines, in addition to deciding who wins local and state races, the next President of the United States.
Many students are unaware that, under federal law, they are legally entitled to register to vote where they attend school if they live on campus. That means that any Millsaps student—from any part of the United States—who lives on campus is allowed to use their campus address and register to vote in Jackson. This conveniently eliminates the often tedious, or impossible, task of students driving home on election day or going through bureaucratic hoops of completing an absentee ballot.
Dr. Nathan Shrader, assistant professor of political science, teaches a freshman Ventures course that is currently having a voter registration movement. Shrader also provides these newly registered students with the voter and election education that is necessary to help them not only throughout college, but also throughout their lives as voting citizens.
While most campuses only have one part —voter registration—, Shrader’s class has both voter registration and voter education. According to Shrader, Millsaps is the only campus in Hinds County that offers this.
“Students work to register other students, but what we do is once we get the list of those who have registered and who are eligible to vote in the election, the students then provide them with neutral, non-partisan information about the election,” Shrader said.
After assisting in registering other students, Shrader’s class scours students’ dorm rooms and gives them information about the polling space, the hours the polls are open, the types of ID students can use to cast their ballots, what to do if they have any issues voting at the precinct and a copy of the sample ballot prior to the election.
“They get to look at what the ballot looks like before they show up there to vote, so if they don’t know a certain candidate, they have time to Google them or to look at social media pages. We found that that was very effective in last year’s election,” Shrader said.
According to Shrader , in the 2014 midterm elections, which is not necessarily comparable to a Presidential election year, in which a senate seat and congressional chairs were up for election, Mississippi ranked near the bottom of national voter turnout. Seeing those statistics inspired Shrader to develop his Venture’s course.
“If there is anything we can do to improve those statistics and do it locally here it’s worth trying, and I thought that it fit very nicely here with the mantra that President Pearigen is always reminding us of, ‘Across the street and around the globe,'” he said. “Literally, election day is across the street, because the polling place is at the Good Samaritan Center.”
Rather than going about registering voters in the typical college campus way, that is to set up a table somewhere and hope people come, Shrader’s class works with Dean Brit Katz, Vice President of Student Life and Dean of Students and Patrick Cooper, Assistant Dean of Residence Life, thus allowing the class to canvas the residence halls. The class divides into teams that cover each residence halls’ registration process. The students are then responsible for canvasing each student who is a freshman, sophomore or junior in that residence building. After receiving the registration forms, Shrader’s class catches for filing errors to make sure that students can vote.
Two students from last year’s Ventures Class, Nathan Gatlin and Hamilton Armour, volunteered to return this year and train the new class of students. Gatlin, Armour and Shrader all trained the students to make sure they knew what they could and could not do while registering students to vote.
The class’ efforts are non-partisan. Regardless of a student’s personal political affiliation or candidate preference, while they are registering voters for the class, they are not allowed to display any political affiliation or to attempt to influence would-be voters in anyway.
Shrader’s on-campus voter registration efforts have received positive recognition from the Mississippi Republican Party, Mississippi Democratic Party and the Green Party of Mississippi, along with on campus organizations like the College Republicans and Young Democrats.
Zack Wallace, a 1998 Millsaps graduate and Hinds County Circuit Clerk whose office supervises voter registration, is supportive of the Ventures Class’ efforts—so supportive, even, that he spoke in front of the class on September 22.
“He wanted to make sure that all of the students involved with the project know just how important this is… He was excited to see how many students were engaged in the project,” Shrader said.
Shrader’s style of voter registration and education has proven to be effective. “Whether or not [someone voted] is public record. So what I did over the summer was to go to the election commission, which is at the Court House, and see who voted last November from our precinct,” Shrader said.
He cross-checked the registered students with the names of people who actually voted—Millsaps students’ voter turnout was 40 percent , whereas the overall poll precinct was about 27 percent.
“It felt like we were doing something right, and that convinced me that we should repeat that project,” Shrader said.
On October 27, at 7:00 p.m., Shrader will host a Media Panel. Location TBD.