Laurentians Rock the Vote: Election Participation and Conversation at St. Lawrence | St. Lawrence University

Laurentians Rock the Vote: Election Participation and Conversation at St. Lawrence

Less than an hour after polls opened for in-person voting in Canton, N.Y., the line of people waiting to cast their ballot snaked around two floors, through the entrance, and onto the sidewalk outside. Among St. Lawrence County’s first in-person voters were two St. Lawrence students: sisters Roisin Creedon-Cary ’24 and Niamh Creedon-Cary ’21.

“With my college schedule, I knew I wouldn't be able to get to the polls on Election Day. I figured the wait wouldn't be long if I got to the polling place early on a Saturday,” says Roisin.

She and Niamh waited for 90 minutes as poll workers sanitized communal surfaces and controlled traffic to allow for as much social distancing as possible while the line safely progressed. 

“I care a lot about the outcome of this election, both nationally and locally, so I really wanted to just go out and get my voice heard as early as possible,” says Niamh. “I’m also an election worker, so I can’t actually vote on Election Day.”

Niamh and Roisin are just two of many St. Lawrence students motivated to use their vote to advocate for the future they believe in at the polls this November. In addition to working the polls, Niamh has taken her involvement a step further by becoming a campus ambassador for the St. Lawrence chapter of the Andrew Goodman Foundation (AGF).

The AGF is a nonpartisan, nationwide nonprofit that mobilizes young people to participate in the American democratic process. At St. Lawrence, ambassadors’ efforts this semester include registering and educating voters, handing out absentee ballot forms along with stamps and envelopes, spreading awareness on social media, and presenting to First-Year Programs on the importance of voting.

“We think our efforts are definitely paying off,” says Niamh. “We know that this year we were able to interact with at least 65% of the first-year students.”

Her fellow AGF ambassador, Ella Charlesworth ’21, says she senses a shift in fervor for civic engagement on campus.

“There is a lot at stake in this election,” she says. “The importance of voting has been mentioned in many of my classes, conversations with friends, and in my social media feeds. We’ve had many students come to the AGF tables to ask questions about the voting process.” 

By providing resources that help students make a plan to vote and ease the stress of finding transportation should they choose to vote in person, AGF also alleviates some of the added anxiety of voting amidst the uncertainty of the pandemic. It also empowers students to exercise one of their most critical obligations as American citizens.

“Voting is integral to our democracy. It is a way to make your voice heard, and is a way to hold elected officials accountable. Young people have power,” says Ella. “As one of the AGF stickers says, ‘Friends don’t let friends miss elections!’”

When a Generation Uses Its Voice

The AGF also partnered with the Thelemothesian Society (or “Thelmo”)—St. Lawrence’s student government—to provide transportation to and from the polls during the early voting period and on Election Day. To further aid the AGF’s efforts to encourage student voting, Thelmo also requested professors record their lectures or teach asynchronously—a flexible approach to remote learning that many professors already choose to incorporate due to the pandemic. 

“Encouraging professors to teach asynchronously on Election Day takes off some stress of students and faculty planning what time they're voting and how they're getting to the polls,” says Molly Thompson ‘22, the current president of the Thelomathesian Society. 

Thelmo will hold elections of its own on November 4, but Molly believes its leaders still play a role in promoting wider civic engagement among the student body. 

“I believe it's the role of student governments to encourage voter participation in general,” says Molly. “Our generation is not powerless and we can make our voices heard the loudest in the voting booth.”

This message isn’t lost on young voters like Roisin: “I felt productive and hopeful. It felt good to vote. Although I pictured my first presidential election to be a bit different, I am glad that SLU provided me with the resources to participate in our democracy.”

Conversations in the Classroom

While students like Niamh, Roisin, Ella, and Molly pursue grassroots efforts to inspire their peers and get out the vote, St. Lawrence faculty are doing their part to help students engage with the issues they’re passionate about in a different way. In Assistant Professor of Government James Sieja’s U.S. Presidency course, students held a public debate on the merits of the Electoral College, while across campus, Charles A. Dana Professor of Statistics Michael Shuckers’ students discussed polling and the election in their Statistical Methods of Data Collection class. 

No matter the discipline, St. Lawrence faculty have been facilitating and are preparing for constructive conversations regarding the election. Associate Professor of History and Coordinator of African American Studies Mary Jane Smith is at the helm of these endeavors.

“We have been making efforts on multiple fronts, including Intergroup Dialogue, Restorative Justice, and the Civic Dialogue Fellows project,” says Smith, who  leads Intergroup Dialogue efforts at St. Lawrence. “These dialogue-based practices and projects foster skills that promote engaged and respectful conversations between people from different backgrounds and viewpoints. All these efforts encourage us to focus on active listening, considering others’ perspectives, and pausing to reflect rather than jumping to quick judgements of others based on their beliefs. These are invaluable skills for life and learning, particularly in these turbulent times.”

Smith also points to the efforts of Associate Professor of History Donna Alvah and Associate Professor of Philosophy Laura Rediehs, who each hosted virtual seminars that equipped colleagues with techniques for overcoming obstacles during conversations between opposing viewpoints. The foundational principle that Americans across the political divide have more in common than it may appear was at the heart of Rediehs’ recent workshop, titled “Facilitating a Conversation with Students About the Election.”

“I actually don’t think that we are really as deeply divided as we are led to believe,” she says. “If we really try to understand each other, we might discover that we actually have similar hopes and values. Conversations that reveal common ground and foster mutual understanding are conversations that begin to heal divisiveness.”

The key, according to Rediehs, is explaining individual experiences and personal truths instead of arguing opinions and making generalizations that neither side can reconcile. It’s also not imperative for one side to convince or change the mind of the other. 

“If two people fall into an impasse over a factual claim, each accusing the other of relying on ‘fake news,’ and there is no hope of bringing them into factual agreement, you can change the question to: ‘Why is it so important to you to think about it in that way?’” Rediehs explains. “If you can get people to speak from their actual lived experience and to explain why this point matters so much to them, then the conversation turns back into an opportunity for both to understand each other better.”

Aiming to foster understanding with productive discourse is most important when doing so seems most challenging. Though it takes work and willingness, Rediehs notes that it isn’t impossible. 

“We have to teach each other how not to just give up on each other when something difficult emerges,” she says. “There really are ways to work through these difficult moments, and then these moments become powerful learning experiences and can forge stronger relationships as well.”

President William L. Fox '75 delivers a message to members of the St. Lawrence community on the importance of exercising their right to vote.