tl;dr: As of this fall, any member of the MIT community can use TurboVote to help them register to vote, be reminded about local elections, and even be mailed an absentee ballot to their dorm. TurboVote is a classic example of a well designed civic technology: solving a societal problem by making something that is difficult (and shouldn’t be) easier by partnering with institutions to make it available to their community members.
Making this happen involved a lot of students, faculty, and staff working collaboratively, and thoughtfully, over a long period of time to make this happen. One of those people was/is Christina Couch, a recent alumna of the Graduate Program in Science Writing; another was Caroline Mak ’18, who had previously worked on another voter registration app funded by the MIT Sandbox initiative. Because I was involved a bit at the beginning, and because I think a lot of our prospective students will be as excited as I am that this is a thing, I asked Christina to write up a brief history of how this came to be, which follows (with some photos from Caroline) immediately below.
Last September, at the height of election fervor, I received an email about civic engagement at MIT. Passions were high on both ends of the political spectrum. Campus was practically saturated with events centered around prominent election issues and candidate debates. As political tensions continued to dominate the news cycle, the election felt almost inescapable. I wanted to increase opportunities for the MIT community to participate in what was happening. So did many other people, and thanks to their work over the past year, MIT has just unveiled a new voter registration initiative that allows anyone to register to vote in Massachusetts, request an absentee ballot from their home state, and even receive text reminders about local, state, and national elections. We’re excited to have made MIT TurboVote a reality, in part because the small team that’s worked on this initiative for the past year has seen the need for voter engagement first-hand.
During the 2016 election, myself, Caroline Mak ’18, and Assistant Director of Admissions Chris Peterson [ed. hi, that’s me] organized volunteers to run what we thought would be a small voter registration drive held in the days leading up to the Massachusetts registration deadline. With financial support from the Chancellor’s Office, the Student Activities Office Supplementary Fund, Course 9 professor Nancy Kanwisher, and other generous MIT faculty, we set up a table in Lobby 10 expecting to help 100, maybe 200, people fill out and send in their registration paperwork over the course of the week. Our volunteers were overwhelmed when more than 600 people registered across the U.S. that week and even more expressed interest but couldn’t wait in the long lines to our table. We didn’t think that anyone should have to wait to register to vote. We wanted to make voter registration a more seamless part of life at MIT.
Once the 2016 election was over, we wanted to make sure that this could happen again at an even a larger scale and we wanted to provide a service that could help students navigate voter registration requirements in all 50 states. We found TurboVote, a voter registration program already used on college campuses across the country. Users can go to mit.turbovote.org, fill out voter registration paperwork or an absentee ballot request, and TurboVote will send a nifty mailer with with a prepaid envelope to send the signed forms back. The site also helps individuals or groups organize their own registration efforts in their dorm, sorority, student group, or anywhere else, making it easier for individuals to increase civic engagement.
Operated by the PKG Public Service Center, implemented by the Registrar and IS&T, and promoted by the MIT Graduate Student Council at orientation events, MIT TurboVote has already helped several hundred students get registered and we’re currently in the process of reaching out to academic departments and student organizations to spread the word. (If your organization would like to help us out with that, please email me at couch [at] mit [dot] edu).
Bright blue envelope, prefilled national voter registration form, and free stamped return mailer!
Ready to be sent off
We are hoping that by making voter registration easy, we can significantly increase engagement in upcoming local elections and in the 2018 midterm elections. One report by the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement found that MIT students lag behind other colleges and universities in voter participation with only about 38% of MIT students voting in national elections versus about 47% of college students nationwide.
In non-presidential elections, our stats drop even lower with just 13% of MIT students voting, compared to about 19% of all college students. We want to make it easier to be a part of the political process and we believe that MIT TurboVote is one of several nonpartisan ways we can work to make that happen.
I’m so happy this has happened and look forward to TurboVote helping the MIT community turn out world-class, civically-engaged leaders in the years to come.