Jun 09, 2023

Letter to the Editor: Students urge Ellis County Clerk to create FHSU polling site

Posted Jun 09, 2023 10:31 AM

As two students of Fort Hays State University, last summer we were alarmed to realize that while other universities in Kansas had a polling place on campus for students to easily access, ours did not. And the impact on our voting rates was evident.

It was August of 2022, and we had recently started our work as the Student Co-Coordinators of the American Democracy Project. The goal of the American Democracy Project is to produce college and university graduates who are equipped with the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and experiences they need to be informed, engaged members of their communities; we help our students gain these skills by promoting civil discourse, education, and engagement at the local, state, and national levels of government.

The lack of a polling location had a clear impact on students’ voting rates at FHSU. A 2020 report from the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement produced by the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University showed that the national voting rate for students across all registered institutions was 66 percent. Fort Hays State University students failed to meet the national average, voting at a significantly lower rate of 62.4 percent.

When compared to other universities in Kansas, this number shows a level of low engagement on our campus that is even more troubling. Kansas State University Students vote at 67.3 percent, Wichita State University Students vote at 68.1 percent, students at Emporia vote at 70.5 percent, and the University of Kansas students vote at 71 percent. FHSU is the only Kansas Board of Regents school enrolled in the national study that does not meet the national average.

It was clear to us that a polling place on campus would make voting more accessible for students and provide us with an opportunity to improve our engagement. In the 2020 election cycle, Wichita State University had an almost 20-point increase when their on-campus polling location opened.

We saw an incredible opportunity for improvement with a clear solution. So we researched, wrote a case for support, and then worked through several approval processes at the university level to gain support for moving a polling place onto the FHSU campus. After talking with individuals who had made similar efforts before us, we came up with a plan that addressed all of the issues that had previously prevented having a polling place on campus, such as cost, safety, parking, and not having enough poll workers.

Our plan alleviated the cost issue by asking that a current polling location be moved to campus, rather than creating an entirely new polling location. Most FHSU students reside in a ward and precinct that has underperformed compared to the other wards and precincts in Hays—thus moving the polling location to a more accessible place was a simple and obvious solution to meeting the needs of registered voters in the area. Our campus is a public space, and easily accessible to both students and other residents to cast their vote.

Bringing community members onto campus did at first raise some potential security questions, but after speaking with the University Police Department, we discovered that UPD had no novel concerns for safety or for parking—and even generously offered to run traffic on election days for us.

Finally, as our proposal to move an existing location to a more accessible place would not require additional poll workers, that previously existing obstacle was addressed. Additionally, moving the location onto campus had the additional benefit of enhancing our efforts to offer students opportunities to engage in democracy. We were excited to be able to provide students with the opportunity to work at the polling station. There is so much student support on campus that we could even send student poll workers to locations in addition to FHSU around Hays.

After making sure our plan addressed all past concerns and was the best option to pursue, we began gathering support from groups on campus: the Staff Senate, Faculty Senate, Office of the President, Student Government Association, the Campus Community Collaborative, the University Police Department, multiple building managers, and other individuals and organizations.

We approached Ellis County Clerk Bobbi Dreiling with the proposal, and she seemed receptive and even went out to our proposed location, the Memorial Union, which she stated was not feasible as the location of the actual room for the poll was quite a distance for voters to access. We recommended a second location, Gross Memorial Coliseum, and she acknowledged it would have been better. Ms. Dreiling visited the Coliseum and found the space would be available for all regularly scheduled elections, but difficult to secure for special elections. In response to this concern, we proposed another part of the building, Cunningham Hall, which would be available for all elections, no matter how short the notice. However, before Ms. Dreiling returned to tour this location, she had already selected a new site for a polling station that was even further from our campus than the original location. This new location condenses two previous voting districts into one and moves the polling station further from voters on campus.

While we were disappointed with this outcome, we believe there is still an opportunity for all of us voters to continue our work to make voting more accessible on our campus at FHSU, and we call on Ms. Dreiling to consider this an ongoing and collaborative project to meet the needs of our community. One other consideration: although no site will be perfect on- or off-campus, we had hoped that the county would add to our students' learning experiences by becoming a partner in this opportunity for civic engagement between town and gown.

And if you support our proposal, we hope you’ll contact Ms. Dreiling. After all, democracy depends on each of us to keep it healthy, and it’s our responsibility as citizens and as elected officials to ensure that people’s voices are effectively represented in our elections—and that comes down to how well we can actually get to our poll. We believe that this partnership between the county and the University learning community can provide immediate electoral benefits, but equally important, sets an example for promoting citizenship for students and county residents alike.

Grace McCord and Madison Albers are students at Fort Hays State University and student co-coordinators of the American Democracy Project.