c/o Sam Hilton, News Editor

c/o Sam Hilton, News Editor

The 2022 midterm elections concluded on Tuesday, Nov. 8 across the nation, with results trickling in over the following weeks. This election cycle has seen a number of surprising upset victories and political anomalies that contributed to the result, of which one of the most prominent was the sizeable turnout and organizing efforts of young, college-aged voters. On-campus organizations such as the Jewett Center of Community Partnerships (JCCP) and Wesleyan American Civil Liberties Union (WesACLU) have taken this as an opportunity to enhance and expand voting access, both at the University and elsewhere.

For the last four years, the JCCP has been operating a Political Engagement Fund to facilitate student participation in politics, campaigning, and electoral advocacy.

“In 2018, we worked closely with President Roth to create an official program component that codified our long-standing interest in supporting student learning through engaging the electoral process,” JCCP Director Clifton Watson and Associate Director Diana Martinez wrote in an email to The Argus. “The purpose of the political engagement fund is to support students in putting civic theory and purpose into action.”

The Political Engagement Fund, Watson and Martinez explained, is specifically aimed at opening up electoral and campaign-based participation to individuals who might not have such opportunities otherwise.

“The JCCP seeks to support civic engagement in all forms, and we recognize both the importance of political engagement and how difficult engaging can be for students from diverse backgrounds,” Watson and Martinez wrote. “This fund allows students who would perhaps otherwise not be able to participate, or maybe not even know where to go to participate…to pursue political action in ways that enhance their personal learning and support communities they care about.”

Since the fund’s inception, the JCCP has worked to expand pathways for student participation and streamline connections between applicants and organizations. This, Watson and Martinez hope, will make it easier for people to partake in the fund without having to build a framework themself.

“[W]e’ve been working on creating more partnerships with non-partisan organizations that work to increase voter engagement and educate the public around some of society’s most critical issues, so that we can direct students to existing projects and ensure that they are well prepared to engage in this work,” Watson and Martinez wrote. “During pandemic shut down periods, we shifted some of the application language to clarify our commitment to the project and to funding remote work.”

The Political Engagement Fund, which currently receives most of its funding from the office of President Michael Roth ’78 but hopes to obtain more backing from donors, is looking to increase the number of applicants and participants that it supports. As of late October, three students had applied to use the Political Engagement Fund for the 2022–23 academic year. 

“We’d like to see many, many more students involved, as we encourage participation across political affiliations and regardless of stances on specific issues,” Watson and Martinez wrote. “Students are able to apply throughout the academic year for projects taking place during winter break, spring break, summer, or at any point during either semester. This is such a wonderful resource, we’d love to see participation at a much larger scale.”

In addition to advocating for specific causes, candidates, and campaigns, the JCCP hopes that those who use the fund can also gain real-life access to the inner workings of community organizing. This, Watson and Martinez write, will build a greater connection between the University community and broad political action. 

“Students also gain some critical skills in networking, communications, fundraising, collective action, and political organizing,” Watson and Martinez wrote. “The candidates or groups they’re working with gain on-the-ground support for their campaigns, folks they can brainstorm with, support with their social media campaigns, and a relationship with Wesleyan students and groups that we hope are long lasting.”

Outside of the Political Engagement Fund, the JCCP has also been working on increasing electoral participation for quite some time. Specifically, Martinez’s work over the past five years has had a significant effect on voter registration and participation on campus.

“We’ve been long committed to encouraging student involvement in the range of activities that constitute civic life—including engagement in the electoral process,” Watson and Martinez wrote. “For example, there was a 10% increase in campus voting between 2016 and 2020 and the most recent [National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement] report shows a 33% increase in midterm voting between 2014 and 2018.”

Other on-campus groups also held voter engagement initiatives in the lead-up to the midterm elections. The Wesleyan ACLU, in partnership with Rho Epsilon, held two workshops to help students complete mail-in ballots on the first floor of Usdan University Center on Friday, Oct. 12, and Friday, Oct 19.

“The Wesleyan ACLU has been putting on stamp events—that’s what we call them—for a number of years,” WesACLU Outreach Coordinator Molly Connolly-Ungar ’25 said. “Basically it’s to help people who have absentee ballots and need to return them. We provide stamps, we’ll help them request an absentee ballot, figure out how to return it, [help with] any issues they’re having, just to make the process of voting from afar really easy.”

The non-partisan workshop saw a few dozen participants who actively came to the table, although organizers hoped that the group’s presence in Usdan would serve as a reminder to more students to deal with their mail-in ballots on their own time as well. Connolly-Ungar noted that most students who came to the group’s table needed help with requesting ballots, a process that can vary greatly from state to state.

“I’m from Texas and especially in states like that, they make it really hard to register to vote absentee,” Rho Epsilon member Megan Perkins ’23 said. “[We’re] helping people in those kinds of states where it’s a bit harder to access those resources and do that. Some are easy and you can do it online. Some are not.”

The incoming officials elected this fall, Connolly-Ungar emphasized, would be weighing a number of important issues such as reproductive rights, LGBTQ equality, and, to some, the nation’s democracy itself.

“There’s a lot of rights issues that are coming to Congress…there could be some real civil liberties changes,” Connolly-Ungar said. “And that would be really awful for a lot of people and a lot of marginalized communities that are already having a very difficult time and…being oppressed by a lot of state governments and the national government. So there’s a lot of important elections that are happening.”

Beckham Hall, which served as the polling place for Middletown’s eighth voting district, saw turnout about on track with past non-presidential years. By 4 p.m., Beckham Hall Moderator Cindy Laquire had recorded 193 ballots cast out of 869 eligible voters in the precinct (not including mail ballots). This represents roughly 22% turnout at the time. In comparison, for the 2019 municipal elections, Beckham Hall saw 20% turnout by 5:00 p.m. Laquire, who has worked as a moderator at Beckham Hall before, noted that these numbers were on par with her expectations for turnout as of 4 p.m.

“I’ve never done another state election [at Beckham], but I think it’s probably about what would’ve been expected,” Laquire said. “I think it’s a pretty even mix [of faculty, staff, students, and community members]. A lot of students have turned out, but it’s been a pretty even mix all day long.”

As the election season has ended and the JCCP looks towards furthering the Political Engagement Fund’s use on campus, Watson and Martinez hope that more students will take advantage of the opportunities afforded to them. In a year of unprecedented turnout among college-aged voters, these initiatives become all the more prominent and notable, as one can’t help but wonder what kind of sway they’ve had on races in both Middletown and across the country.

“We hope that going forward, our students can help shift not just elections, but that they can help shape national conversations about what the needs and the future of the country are,” Watson and Martinez wrote. “Our overall goal is that students feel better civically connected to the world around them and that our communities see us as partners willing to dig our heels in alongside them.”

Sam Hilton can be reached at shilton@wesleyan.edu.

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