This election season has been different than years past for Kylie Dunlap. The O’Neill Civic Leadership major also works as a civic engagement assistant with IUPUI’s Division of Student Affairs. For the past two years, Kylie has worked hard to register other students to vote, lead events like IUPUI’s March to the Polls, planned debate watch parties and mock elections, and hosted voter information tables and events at the Campus Center.
“We are nonpartisan, so our main goal is to encourage everyone to vote—no matter what party they’re involved in, no matter their views,” she says. “We want to make sure everyone has the resources to vote.”
Yet this year looks a bit different, thanks to COVID-19. Ahead of the 2020 elections, Dunlap is at home in Evansville instead of on campus. Her classes, like many other students’, are virtual this semester.
But distance doesn’t mean being disconnected for Dunlap. She’s helping amp up the group’s social media presence to connect with students, no matter where they are. They’re working through how to host virtual debate watch parties and possibly a virtual mock election. And they’re trying to reimagine the March to the Polls. They’re also shifting their focus from in-person voting to absentee.
“We had been thinking about pushing absentee voting for a while, but this year there’s a lot more interest than before,” she says. “A lot of students don’t know that they can vote absentee. In Indiana, being a college student qualifies you to do that.”
Dunlap wants to ensure students and others are aware of their options and the importance of this—and every—election. In between classes and her campus work, she’s phone banking—volunteering by calling people to make sure they’re registered to vote and plan to head to the polls. She says phone and text banking is something that’s easy to do, regardless of location. In 2018 she volunteered to work at the polls—and she’s encouraging other young people to do the same.
“This year, they’re looking for a lot of poll workers because of the pandemic,” Dunlap explains. “Many poll workers are older and may be at risk in crowded areas because of COVID-19. This is a chance for more younger people to step up and fill that gap.”
She says the training and process are straightforward and points out that poll workers are paid for their time. Fellow O’Neill Civic Leadership major Madison Pershing will be one of those workers this year. It was one of the options students could select as the culminating project for their V-473 Management, Leadership, and Policy capstone course with O’Neill Assistant Dean of Student Services Suzann Lupton.
“Engaged learning is important for all students,” Lupton explains. “Traditionally, our Public Affairs capstone course has been built around a project that students do on behalf of a public or community organization. This year, we provided a choose-your-own-adventure option. They figure out how they want to engage and determine what and how they want to contribute.”
Lupton says she had heard about the serious staffing challenges for polling locations nationwide and presented it as an opportunity to students. The handful of students who selected this option will also write a paper about the barriers to civic participation through voting and reflect on their own experiences as a poll worker.
Students like Pershing are approaching the project through a creative lens. She plans on producing a video series about her experience and barriers to voting, one that she hopes will demystify the process for all potential voters—and poll workers.
“I hope they become motivated to engage in the political process,” Pershing says. “Sometimes, people don’t know who is involved and it can be overwhelming. But taking baby steps to become more educated about the political process and voting matters.”
Educated, not experts, she stresses. Pershing just wants people to become more invested in what’s going on around them and the decisions that affect everyone. She says she’s lived that experience since transferring from the O’Neill School in Bloomington.
“This is my first dive into elections and political work,” she says. “I think it was spurred on by transferring to O’Neill IUPUI and becoming a civic leadership major. Now I know these opportunities are out there. I see the world differently and know I can make an impact.”