Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon (left) presented Winona State University Student Senate President Ben Ellgen with a trophy for winning the state-wide Ballot Bowl, a voter-registration competition among colleges.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Holden Sill knocked on strangers’ doors last fall and got a lot of rejections. “Half of the time, they wouldn’t answer. They’d just look out and say, ‘Oh I don’t know you, I’m not answering,’” he recalled.
Sill was going door-to-door in the dorms — not for any particular candidate, but just to get his fellow Winona State University students to vote, period.
Young people are less likely to vote. It’s a general rule that has held true for decades. Only 17-percent of U.S. citizens age 18-24 voted in the 2014 midterms, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Over 16 million young people stayed home.
At Winona State University (WSU), students and faculty worked hard last year to change that. Sill and dozens of other students went door-to-door, tabled on campus, canvassed on social media, and even drove students to the polls in an effort to get as many students as possible to register and vote.
“Whenever you see someone tabling, you always avoid eye contact,” WSU Student Senate President Ben Ellgen said. “I think once you get over that initial barrier, students are really receptive,” he explained.
“You have to yell at people,” WSU Student Senate Vice President Lizzie Casey said, half-joking, about getting students’ attention while tabling. “You have say, ‘Hey! Do you want to register to vote?’”
For all the rejections, their work paid off. A coalition of WSU student and faculty groups registered 1,056 students to vote last fall — 16.3 percent of the student body. WSU registered more new voters than any other Minnesota State school and — for the second time in three election cycles — won the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Ballot Bowl competition.
“This is not a fluke. It’s a streak,” Secretary of State Steve Simon told WSU students as he presented them with a trophy last week.
Professor Kara Lindaman helped organize the voter registration drive. “The best thing about Winona State University is that student and community engagement is in our blood,” she said. “It’s part of the institutional culture, and we don’t accomplish any of this without all of us.”
WSU students’ efforts contributed to a nationwide surge in young voter participation in the 2018 midterms — which nearly doubled from 17 percent in 2014 to 30 percent last year, according to the Census Bureau.
“Talking to a lot of the students, that was the first time they had ever voted in their life and they just had that nervous, excited energy,” Ellgen said.
“We’ve kind of grown up in a different generation with more polarization that has maybe made people disenchanted with the electoral process,” Casey said of her generation. “But I do think progress has been made in realizing, yes, voting is important.”
“I think a lot of people my age, they really care and want to be involved, but a lot of the time what discourages them is they don’t want to make the wrong decision or be uninformed or dumb … They want to participate, but they want to make the right decision,” Sill said. To educate voters and make people feel confident about voting, Sill passed out information on all of the candidates and WSU groups hosted political forums where state-wide candidates came to Winona to explain their positions.
At last week’s event, Minnesota State Representative Gene Pelowski (D-Winona) cited a report that nearly half of the members of Education Minnesota — Minnesota’s teacher union — did not vote in the last election. “When you have half of the biggest education union in this state not voting, we have a problem,” he stated.
“I think now more than ever it’s important that we’re being engaged, being educated, and voting,” Ellgen said. “Because we all know how important it is.”
Minnesota’s presidential primary elections are coming up on March 3, 2020. For information on how to register to vote, visit sos.state.mn.us or contact the local elections office. In Winona County, that is the Winona County Auditor-Treasurer’s Office located at 177 Main Street and available by phone at 507-457-8830.