In 2016, 51 percent of University of Redlands undergraduate students voted in the general election, according to data collected by the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE). A group of students and faculty thought the community could do better and mobilized to increase student voter registration and turn out rates.
After meeting with a handful of faculty members in March, political science major Montserrat Pineda ’22 sent a mass email asking students interested in voter engagement to get involved, and Leslie Estrada ’23, Brianna Hernandez ’22, Rosemary Montoya ’22, and Salvador Rico ’21 responded with enthusiasm. The group formed Bulldogs Vote, a student-led nonpartisan organization that aims to bring students, faculty, administrators, and staff together to engage in conversations about voting, the political process, and civic issues.
“Our main goal is to create a culture in which students are always talking about voting and being civically engaged—and not just during an election year,” says Montoya. “We want to make sure people are aware of everything that's going on, such as smaller local elections and why they matter and why the people we put into office—not just candidates at the top of the ballot—are important. While this is obviously an election year, we want to make sure to keep the momentum going. It doesn’t stop after November 3.”
As the group was forming, members were planning to hold events and organize on campus. But as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, it became apparent that in-person work wouldn’t be possible. Still, the students remain committed and are organizing virtually. Members have outlined a three-year plan that includes goals to reinvent programming, bring other clubs and organizations into the conversation, increase funding for the group, and expand efforts into the greater community in the city of Redlands.
“In light of all the uncertainty that exists right now, we’re trying to prepare and research as much as possible,” says Rico, who has been investigating the best ways to register voters online while working with Montoya to update the group’s Instagram followers on voting news, dates of primary elections, and general knowledge for voters in advance of the election.
In addition to being active on social media platforms, the group is planning to host an open forum video call where members of the campus community can ask questions and learn about action items. They are also counting on a variety of campus stakeholders to further the conversation in their own circles. A mix of six faculty members and administrators—Director of Student Involvement and Success Erin Sanborn, Professor of Race and Ethnic Studies Jennifer Tilton, Interim Director of Diversity Initiatives Monique Stennis, Professor of Political Science Renee Van Vechten, Assistant Provost for Internationalization Steve Wuhs, and Director of Community Service Learning Tony Mueller—advise the group.
Professor of Race and Ethnic Studies Jennifer Tilton, one of the group’s advisers, says, “A lot of U of R faculty members, along with Bulldogs Vote, are interested in making sure that students are exposed to their full power as citizens so they can see the ways they can work in organizations and civic society—both during election season and between elections—to make change.”
Valuing their voices
Each student leader is motivated by a different mix of experiences and interests.
For Hernandez, studying environmental science led to an interest in public policy. “I often see a big lack of interest in the environmental injustice that is happening,” she says. “In the end, the environment affects public health, which has really empowered me to think about what my vote means. Who we vote for determines how the environment will be treated.”
For her part, Pineda is inspired to help represent the underrepresented: “For a very long time, I was the only one in my family who was able to vote,” she says. “I’m very close to where I come from, so for me, it’s always been about making sure there are resources available to people. When I vote, I think about how the proposition or elected official will make sure that it’s meeting the needs of the people.”
Regardless of motivation, the group’s leadership maintains that getting young people to vote is critical to the country’s future.
“We often hear that it's young voters who don't vote,” says Estrada. “Looking at the issues around the country right now, I think it's crucial we realize how important our voices are. Voting doesn’t only affect us in the present—it affects future generations and our country as a whole.”