It was Oct. 13 and Amen Gashaw ’24 woke up early with a mission. She drove with her mother straight to a voting site in Snellville, Ga. Arriving half an hour before the polls even opened, Gashaw, a self-proclaimed “election enthusiast,” was determined to vote in her first presidential election on her birthday.
It was 7:30 a.m. and Gashaw’s day was just getting started.
“If you’d told me last year that I’d be standing in line for six hours in capricious Georgia weather with a mask strapped to my face just to vote, I would’ve been incredulous,” she said of her experience.
This year, many Harvard community members faced obstacles on the way to the polls. Some barriers, like long waits and complicated voter registration processes, were expected. Other challenges, such as the unique mail-in voting requirements, were sparked by the pandemic and were novel even to seasoned voters.
The Harvard Votes Challenge, the civic engagement initiative founded in 2018 by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and Institute of Politics (IOP) at Harvard Kennedy School, was launched with a mission to help University voters cast their ballots. In March, the Challenge team quickly realized that the voter engagement and support tactics they had deployed on campus in the past wouldn’t work. The Harvard community was battling the pandemic, living, working, and studying miles from Cambridge.
“Under unprecedented circumstances, Harvard students, faculty, and staff teamed up to engage our entire community to provide information, answer questions, and break down barriers to voting,” recalled IOP Director Mark D. Gearan ’78.
Late last spring, the Challenge team began to assemble a coalition of organizers at all of Harvard’s 12 degree-granting Schools, eventually signing on more than 390 volunteers across campus. Rather than trying to find a one-size-fits-all strategy, the team worked with each School to develop unique methods to accomplish everything from inspiring and registering voters to securing stamps for mail-in ballots. The only overarching principle that guided tactics across the University was to meet voters where they were.