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Ahead of Midterm Elections, 90 Percent of Harvard Kennedy School Students Commit to Registering to Vote

The Harvard Kennedy School.
The Harvard Kennedy School. By Caleb D. Schwartz
By Michelle G. Kurilla and Lucy Liu, Contributing Writers

Ninety percent of Harvard Kennedy School students are registered on the voting platform TurboVote, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation announced last week.

The high voter registration comes as the Kennedy School has been pushing a new University-wide initiative, dubbed the Harvard Votes Challenge. Created by Theodore “Teddy” N. Landis ’20 and Derek Paulhus ’19, the Harvard Votes Challenge is a student-run initiative aimed at increasing voter and civic engagement across the University. With a coalition leader at each of the schools, the program is able to reach undergraduate and graduate students alike.

“We came together because we saw a really awesome movement happening around the country where youth were getting more involved, and they seemed to actually be making a difference,” Landis said. “We saw polling numbers come out of the IOP which showed youth were more excited about this upcoming midterm than they had been about previous midterms.”

The Institute of Politics released new survey results from their biannual national youth poll on Monday that found 40 percent of surveyed respondents indicated that they were likely to vote in the midterm elections next week.

At Harvard, each school provides various avenues for students to register to vote. In the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, undergraduates at the College can register to vote using the TurboVote platform during the annual check-in process at the start of the semester.

Participating in TurboVote, though, is not the same as actually registering to vote. Students who participate in TurboVote must still send their completed voter registration form after it arrives in the mail.

Landis said the Kennedy School has relied on connections among students themselves, fostered by the small sizes of cohorts, to encourage voting.

“There are about 500 students who are eligible to vote at the Kennedy School, so it’s a much smaller cohort than we have at the College,” Landis said.

Though specific voter turnout rates for eligible HKS students have not been calculated before, there are unique challenges to voting as a Kennedy School student that may contribute to a low turnout. Kathryn A. Sikkink, a professor of human rights policy and a faculty cosponsor for the Harvard Votes Challenge, said one challenge for registering Kennedy School students to vote is that they only participate in degree programs for one or two years.

“On one hand they’re more interested, and on the other hand it’s more difficult because they’re here for such a short time,” Sikkink said. “If they need to switch their registration, they have added burden.”

Teresa Acuña, an associate director at the Ash Center, said the Harvard Votes initiative at the Kennedy School focused on “the institutional buy-in around the culture of voting.”

For previous elections, work encouraging voter turnout was largely relegated to HKS student groups like the Republican Caucus or Democratic Caucus. This year, Acuña said new students completing registration checklists were asked if they would like to register to vote through TurboVote. Voting reminders were also included on the financial aid website and the admissions blog, she said.

This fall, many people across the University — from its top brass to student groups — have made a concerted push to encourage voting in the midterm elections. In his address to newly minted freshmen at the College, University President Lawrence S. Bacow said registering to vote was the students’ first “homework assignment.”

Sikkink said she hoped civic engagement would increase at Harvard in the near future. Only 23.6 percent of Harvard students University-wide voted in the 2014 midterm elections, so Sikkink said the 90 percent registration statistic is something to be optimistic about.

“It would be really exciting to see a Harvard student voter turnout that surpassed our turnout in the presidential election,” she said.

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