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TurboVote Eases Voter Registration

By Juliet R. Bailin, Contributing Writer

Interested in politics since she was young, Katharine A. Kirk ’15 chose to spend her gap year interning for Senator John Kerry on Capitol Hill. Though she was 18 and in Washington during the 2010 midterm elections, Kirk only registered to vote this fall on Study Card Day.

“I felt terrible,” Kirk says about not registering to vote last year.

Despite saying that she was embarrassed last November, her experience on the Hill gave her a better understanding of working in politics.

“What I gleaned from my experience in D.C. is that I don’t want to do that as a career, but I still want to be involved somehow,” Kirk says.

Now enrolled at Harvard, Kirk looks forward to attending more events at the Institute of Politics, getting involved in President Obama’s re-election campaign, and voting.

“It’s just hard with my school work,” Kirk says. “Being here, I’ve not read a newspaper in so long. I’m in a little bubble. So I need to work on that.”

Though Kirk and other freshmen have been participating in politics for years—writing letters to local representatives and leading peers in school government—there are still many freshmen, and upperclassmen, who are not registered or who will not vote. To combat this disconnect between activism and voting, the IOP has partnered with TurboVote, a new online voter registration service. Next week, the Nov. 8 general election will provide the first opportunity for many of these newly registered students to vote.

A POLITICAL CAMPUS

Each fall, political groups on campus attract hundreds of freshmen interested in government and policy.

Each semester, the Institute of Politics registers around 350 students as members. The largest percentage of these students is freshmen. This year, freshmen also make up half of the students participating in the IOP’s competitive liaison program, in which students assist the IOP resident fellows, according to IOP Student President Jeffrey F. Solnet ’12.

“A lot of people come to Harvard because of the Institute of Politics,” Solnet says. “There’s an immediate attraction if you’re interested in politics. You hear that the President of Chile is going to be in the forum. You’re going to go.”

Harvard freshmen join not only the IOP, but also the Undergraduate Council, the Harvard Republican Club, and the Harvard College Democrats.

Ian D. Lundberg ’15 joined Harvard College Act on a Dream, an organization dedicated to immigration reform, and recently attended their Ivy League Immigrants’ Rights Coalition Summit. He has been interested in politics since joining the Sierra Club, the U.S.’s largest grassroots environmental organization, when he was 12.

Kirk is one of many Harvard freshmen who have also participated in politics off campus.

Megan E. Reynolds ’15 interned on the Hill for Nancy Pelosi’s office the summer before her junior year. Though she is taking this semester off from extracurricular activities to acclimate herself to college life, Reynolds says she plans to comp the IOP in the spring.

“It’s really refreshing how many people here are actively involved in politics or are so interested and educated about political issues,” Reynolds says.

While Reynolds is registered to vote, she does not plan on voting until next year.

“Since I haven’t voted on anything yet, I want to wait for the presidential election,” Reynolds says.

EXERCISING YOUR RIGHT

Despite the number of active political groups at Harvard and other colleges around the country, interest in the issues does not always translate into voting in elections.

According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, only 20.9 percent of eligible voters aged 18 to 19 voted in the 2010 midterm election.

Reed R. Snyder ’15 cited time as one reason why few students, particularly freshmen, might not register or vote.

“Harvard is a place where so much is expected of you in so many different areas, it doesn’t leave a whole lot of time to step back and think about big picture things like national politics,” Snyder says.

A varsity swimmer with 25 hours of practice a week, Snyder has not joined any political clubs this semester. However, Snyder is registered to vote and stays informed about current events and the 2012 primaries.

Alexander A. Wirth ’15, who has joined two IOP committees and participates in Harvard Model United Nations, has made youth engagement a central focus of his political activism.

Wirth blogs for the Huffington Post, is a fellow at the Forum for Youth Investment, and he chairs the Youth Working Group for the U.S. National Commission to UNESCO.

“What I advocate for is trying to get young people included in a more substantial way, so that instead of just being talked at, they are talked with,” Wirth says.

Solnet says that approximately 80 percent of Harvard undergraduates are registered to vote. According to Laura J. Simolaris, the IOP’s director of national youth engagement, 25 percent of students who registered on Study Card day this year did so in Massachusetts.

“People don’t feel like they are members of the Cambridge community,” Solnet said. “It’s the Harvard bubble effect.”

Choosing where to register to vote is a personal decision. Wirth says that choosing to register locally rather than in one’s home state depends on where students are from.

“New Mexico is a battle ground state,” Wirth said. “My vote can have an impact there. If you’re from a state that is heavily Democratic or Republican with uncontested races then you should consider registering in Massachusetts.”

Even students who chose to register locally did not necessarily exercise their right to vote.

Last year, out of the three Cambridge wards in which Harvard students are the majority of voters, only three students voted, and they all lived in the Yard, Solnet says.

Wirth recommends that students pay attention to how politics relates to issues they care about and added that registering anywhere is vitally important as many elections are determined by a couple hundred votes.

“That’s the amount of people sitting here in Annenberg,” Wirth said at an interview during lunch one Thursday afternoon. “For us not to care right now is irresponsible as this is the country we are going to inherit.”

AS EASY AS NETFLIX

Recognizing low student voting rates, the IOP began to provide voter registration forms on Study Card Day in 1999. This year, the IOP partnered with a new voter registration service called TurboVote, which allows individuals to register quickly and efficiently online.

Once users have signed up, TurboVote tracks their election calendars and can send them completed voter-registration forms or vote-by-mail applications as well as pre-stamped, pre-addressed envelopes to their local election boards. TurboVote also sends email and text reminders to users to mail in forms, absentee ballots, or to vote in person.

TurboVote founder Seth E. Flaxman conceived of the idea for TurboVote while attending the Harvard Kennedy School. According to Flaxman, approximately 50 percent of Americans vote in presidential elections, around 40 percent in midterm elections, and as low as 10 or 20 percent in local elections or primaries.

After working in New York, Flaxman moved to Cambridge in 2009 and realized that he had missed a number of elections and had not re-registered to vote.

“I wondered, how come it’s so much easier for me to rent a movie than participate in democracy?” Flaxman says. “Voting doesn’t fit the way we live and it especially doesn’t fit the way students live. Students are moving around constantly. So to build a voter registration and voting system that fits the way students live it has to act more like Netflix.”

Lundberg was already registered when he submitted his study card, but said that the process seemed easy to use and was a great idea. Noah F. Greenwald ’15 forgot to turn in his study card that afternoon but registered through TurboVote.org on his own.

“Every year, freshmen are the group that should be registering to vote,” Flaxman says. “I would love to see every Harvard undergrad using TurboVote to stay registered and receive help voting by mail or voting in person after four years on Harvard’s campus. It might take four years to get there because the freshman class is usually the most intense about taking care of this.”

To improve TurboVote’s user accessibility, Flaxman is working with Solnet and Greenwald to recruit a Harvard student to code a mobile-friendly version of TurboVote. Greenwald said the programming might count towards a CS50 student’s final project. Solnet hopes the program will be completed this month so that it can be tested and implemented throughout the year.

Though TurboVote is still in its early stages, it has made an impact on Harvard students.

“I know a lot of people registered through [TurboVote] who wouldn’t have otherwise,” Greenwald says. “I don’t think I would’ve, especially freshman year. As a Harvard student who wasn’t working on the voter registration group, I don’t think I would have been motivated enough to do it.”

Greenwald will join many other freshmen who will vote for the first time next week. Starting in January, registered freshmen can vote in state caucuses and primaries. The class of 2015 will then have the opportunity to vote in the 2012 presidential election.

“We’re at a really big decision point,” Wirth said. “Right now is not time for apathy. It’s a time for action.”

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