Grant Helps Grad Students Work the Polls

CMU GSA members volunteer to fill vital role

Allegheny County, where Carnegie Mellon University’s Pittsburgh campus is located, is facing a shortage of poll workers leading up to Election Day. Traditionally, the volunteers for these critical positions are senior citizens, who are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. Unfilled positions could lead to closed polling places and long lines for voters.

Fifty graduate students from CMU have stepped up to meet this need thanks to a $5,000 grant.

Statistically, university students are usually not very civically engaged. But Divyansh Kaushik, vice president of external affairs for CMU’s Graduate Student Assembly (GSA), works to change that trend. In fact, CMU students have been voting more in recent elections - 6.8% more students voted in 2016 than did in 2012. And in July 2020, the GSA advocated for CMU to file an amicus brief in response to proposed legislation from the Department of Homeland Security. The proposed legislation threatened the ability of international students to continue their studies at CMU during the pandemic.

"Political issues are no longer abstract," said Kaushik. "It’s become very personal lately and students are getting more and more engaged."

As a result of these efforts over time, the GSA was invited to apply for several grants from the National Conference on Citizenship (NCOC), a non-partisan nonprofit organization chartered by Congress that aims to increase civic engagement and advocacy.

The NCOC has an initiative called Students Learn Students Vote, which funds projects that increase college student voter participation. Kaushik asked for funds to help recruit students for the poll worker positions.

County Councilperson At-Large and Board of Elections member Bethany Hallam explains that the county is particularly eager to recruit university students into these roles because, as tech-savvy scholars, students tend to learn quickly and help a polling place operate smoothly under pressure.

"It’s so inspiring to see the number of university students getting involved in the poll worker process," Hallam said. "Especially in the midst of a global pandemic when so many of our usual elderly or immunocompromised poll workers are unable to take the risk of being in public, Allegheny County is so lucky to have students stepping up to fill this crucial role in preserving our democracy."

The NCOC agreed, awarding the grant to the GSA.

To date, 27 graduate students have been assigned to work polling places, mostly in Scott Township, a township south of the city of Pittsburgh, and many have completed in-person training. Twenty-three more students await assignments and will receive training from their CMU colleagues on Election Day. The grant helps fund their transportation to the polls and offers them a stipend for meals as they work a 13-hour shift.

"We have also purchased personal protective equipment for our volunteers, as Pennsylvania is not a state that requires facial coverings to be worn inside polling places," said Kaushik. "We analyzed demographics and noticed that the people more likely to be voting in person this election are also statistically more likely to not be wearing masks, so we wanted to be sure our volunteers are safe."

The GSA was awarded a second, $1,000 grant from the NCOC to support Get Out The Vote efforts. Funds will support targeted social media outreach to CMU students.

Kaushik and the GSA would like civic engagement to be a central concept for all Tartans. "It’s not something that should be disentangled from our academic pursuits or our education at CMU," Kaushik said. "We want civic engagement to be a core part of what we’re here to learn."


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