Spartan Newsroom spoke with Bryn Williams when working on a story about how voter registration in East Lansing had doubled from 2012 to 2016. During the discussion, he talked a lot about the struggle that he getting students registered to vote and how we can overcome them.
Efforts by the East Lansing City Clerk and campus student groups helped lead to a three fold increase in new voter registrations from 2012 to 2016, according to the clerk’s office.
So how did they do it? Spartan Newsroom asked Williams, former community liaison at the Associated Students of Michigan State University, MSU’s undergraduate student government. Williams was involved in helping to plan voter registration efforts.
Spartan Newsroom: Do you think if the College Democrats and the Associated Students for Michigan State University hadn’t gone out with clipboards to register students to vote, students wouldn’t have registered?
Bryn Williams: No. It’s not a matter of me being pessimistic with student apathy or anything like that. It’s just the facts of life. For our demographic, if it is hard to register to vote, if there are significant hurdles to that — when I say significant, I mean the paperwork that you have to fill out, the fact that you can’t vote absentee for your first time unless you voted in person beforehand — there are all these ridiculous facets of Michigan’s election law that makes it so hard for students to go and actually understand what they’re doing when they do it independently. There is no guidance from the state.
SN: Do you see student registration numbers continuing to rise or do you think it depends on who is running for office?
Williams: I think that this is a turning point, especially given the results of this election and given the fact that 25 percent of the registered electorate elected the next president. Obviously, that’s unique to the American system, but I think it opened a lot of people’s minds to the fact that elections do matter. The notion that your vote doesn’t count is just absurd, because of course your individual vote isn’t going to make a difference, but if you’re not voting and all of your friends are not voting, that multiplies quickly and it does have an impact on the election.
SN: How do you convince students that their vote does matter?
Williams: It’s frustrating for sure because I get it. People don’t feel or understand the decisions that are made and how those decisions affect their lives. So it’s frustrating to try and explain that it does matter, but ultimately I think that this election spoke for everyone that was trying to convince everyone else on the part of civic engagement. I think people are going to have to wake up and recognize that there’s a real reason to go out and vote. I really hope that that coincides with making voting more accessible.
SN: What was it about this election specifically that got so many students not only registering to vote, but actually getting out and doing just that?
Williams: I think that it was just about how much this election became a part of everyday life. I’m not party-affiliated, but I would commend the efforts of the College Democrats. They were out there every single day not only pushing voter registration, but talking to people about why it’s important to register to vote and why it’s to not only do that, but then to go out and actually vote. I really think that it was the community here on campus that had a significant impact on that. If you look at nationally, East Lansing was an anomaly. This didn’t happen across the country. This didn’t happen in college towns across the country. I really do think it was a particularly good effort on behalf of members of the East Lansing community.
SN: One might argue that there was a notion of citizens voting strictly to keep a certain candidate out of office. What would you like to see happen differently from here on out?
Williams: I hope that next time people get out for reasons beyond just voting against something. As much as I think that that’s a part of how you cast your vote, I don’t think that it should be the whole reason to cast your vote. What I would like to see down the road is candidates like we saw in 2008 that really inspired people to get out and vote, because we all know this now that the national turnout was incredibly depressed compared to where it was four years ago or eight years ago. So I think that there’s no good way to have elections where you just vote against people. You have to be voting for something — a vision for what’s right in terms of policy, but also a standard set of beliefs of government’s role in society.