When members of the class of 2023 arrived on campus, their check-in consisted of three steps: pick up student ID card, collect keys, and register to vote.
In the first year of a new effort to bolster civic engagement among Harvard students, volunteers with Harvard Votes Challenge — a student organization focused on increasing voter turnout at Harvard — helped eligible freshmen register to vote and update their voter registration status as they arrived on campus.
“We strongly believe that we should institutionalize voter engagement and civic engagement as a part of life here on Harvard's campus,” said Theodore “Teddy” N. Landis ’20, a co-founder of Harvard Votes Challenge. “One of the most powerful ways to do that is to say, ‘When you arrive here on campus, one of the first things you do as a Harvard student is to register to vote.’”
Harvard Votes Challenge volunteers spoke with more than 1,000 freshmen and helped mail more than 600 voter registration forms, according to Landis.
Georgena M. A. Williams ’23 said she had already started the voter registration process in her home state, but that a session with Harvard Votes Challenge volunteers during her pre-orientation program helped her confirm her voter registration status.
“I just turned 18, so it helps to kind of correct any misconceptions I had about registering to vote, and made the task seem a little less daunting,” she said.
Students who weren’t eligible to vote — including international, undocumented, or underage students — were engaged in conversations about other ways to practice civic engagement on campus.
Matej Cerman ’23, an international student, called the initiative a “good idea” even though he was not able to fully participate.
“I mean, I was slightly bothered by having to fill out the forms,” he said. But, he added, “It's certainly a good thing to try to increase turnout.”
Some students said they felt that adding registration to move-in day activities increased chaos.
“I think the initiative broadly is a good one,” said William M. Sutton ’23, who had registered to vote before coming to campus. “I just think this setting in which it took place kind of made it harder for the initiative to have the impact that it wanted to have.”
Sutton cited a lack of surfaces to write on and a pressing desire to settle in and shower as concerns.
Institute of Politics Director Mark D. Gearan ’78 said he is “very proud” of the new initiative.
“A part of undergraduate education is teaching civic engagement, no matter what your politics might be,” he said.
“Looking to the future, our goal is 100 percent participation among all students on this campus,” Landis said. “And so we're going to have to build a system which not only reaches 100 percent, but is also meaningful for 100 percent.”