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Sandifer and Perez

Emory Votes Initiative encourages civic engagement on campus and beyond

The nonpartisan Emory Votes Initiative is making voting easier for faculty, staff and students. Members across the community are voting for the first time, helping register others and getting the word out to drive higher participation rates.

By Kelundra Smith Oct. 25, 2022

Do you remember the first time you voted? It’s a simple question that evokes varied emotions for Americans from generation to generation. 

For Laura Gafnea, director of community engagement at Oxford College, voting in the 2002 presidential election infused a “huge sense of pride.” 

As a Cuban immigrant, Emory NAACP chapter president Alvaro Perez holds his right to vote dear, because his family was unable to do so back home.

Hannah Joy Gebresilassie, program coordinator for the Emory Votes Initiative (EVI), cast her first vote in 2012 along with her mother, who migrated to the U.S. from Ethiopia. 

"I remember feeling overjoyed and nervous at the same time taking in the process,” says Gebresilassie. “At the end, it was like ‘oh, that’s it?’ because the process wasn’t as complicated as I thought. I felt proud and ecstatic to cast my vote for the first time and get that vote sticker with my mom. Since then, my mother and I have made it a tradition to vote together."

During Homecoming 2022, Hannah Joy Gebresilassie, program coordinator for the Emory Votes Initiative, hosted a tent to remind people to vote in the upcoming election.

The journey to the ballot is a uniquely American story, and the right to vote is the cornerstone of democracy. The nonpartisan Emory Votes Initiative works to make voting easy for faculty, staff and students by sharing important dates, hosting voter registration drives, providing voters with mock ballots and more. 

During the spring semester and preorientation, EVI also takes students to the Georgia Capitol to see how the state legislature works. 

Get out the vote 

One of EVI’s signature programs is voter registration. Student workers table every week during Wonderful Wednesday to get their peers registered to vote. They also share information about how students can vote on campus or apply for absentee ballots.

In the spring, Mike Sandifer, a graduate student in the Rollins School of Public Health, helped DeKalb residents find the 1599 building to participate in early voting on the Atlanta campus.

Mike Sandifer, a student in the Rollins School of Public Health, is EVI’s first graduate fellow and also a 2022 Campus Vote Project fellow. Growing up in McComb, Mississippi, Sandifer saw the impact elected officials have on health care outcomes. For major medical issues, residents of Pike County, Mississippi, drive 90 minutes to New Orleans because the regional hospital is often slammed with patients. This inspired him to pursue a degree in public health to make a positive difference. 

That commitment to community is in his genes. Sandifer’s father volunteered with the Pike County Democratic Committee. His grandfather was involved with the National Association of Colored People (NAACP) and served as a poll watcher during the Jim Crow era. For his part with EVI, Sandifer encourages his peers to understand the power of their vote. 

"Millennials and Gen Z make up the majority of the population, but when it comes to voting, we’re letting older people outdo us,” says Sandifer. “It’s not a diss at the older population, but in conversations with my parents and grandparents, they don’t always vote for my best interest. Why would the older lady down the street vote for student loan forgiveness when she’s worried about Medicare? I try to tell college students that we have a large voice as a collective."

Like Sandifer, Ismael Karim got involved in his community at an early age. Karim grew up in inner-city St. Louis, the son of a mother from the Canary Islands and a father from Pakistan. Until they became U.S. citizens, they were unable to vote, and Karim says he saw the consequences of his community not having a voice. When U.S. Rep. Cori Bush ran for office, he volunteered with her campaign by knocking on doors in his neighborhood and phone banking. He also volunteered on the campaign for Tishaura Jones, who is now the first Black woman mayor of St. Louis. 

First-year student Ismael Karim, whose internship in the EVI office is co-sponsored by the Georgia Muslim Voter Project and the Emory Muslim Alumni, first got involved in politics in his hometown of St. Louis.

Karim’s internship with EVI is sponsored by the Georgia Muslim Voter Project. As he gets to know the Emory community, he says he is looking for ways to increase Muslim voter turnout by helping people understand how to register in Georgia. 

"The process for people who are from the state and the process for people who are not from the state are very different,” says Karim. “It can already be off-putting because of how [Muslims are] talked about or neglected in policy matters. The lack of Muslim candidates can disengage us as a population, but I try to let people know that voting is an outlet to fix things in the community."

Heed the groundswell

(From left) Kendra Price, Alvaro Perez and Mike Sandifer promoted the new Emory polling site in the spring.

Before there was an EVI, individuals on the Atlanta and Oxford campuses were doing voter education and registration work. In 2018, this collection of grassroots individuals and organizations reached critical mass and formed EVI. 

Regardless of political affiliation, EVI aims to have 100% voter participation among the Emory community. The university participated in the National Study of Voting, Learning and Engagement distributed by Tufts University. In 2012, the study showed that the university had a voting rate of only 43.3% among undergraduate students on the Atlanta and Oxford campuses. The national rate was 52.9% at the time. 

As of the 2018 election, Emory has doubled the number of students who are registered to vote and tripled the number of students who participate in elections. 

"Initially, we were just trying to harness all the interest around campus for the [2018] election cycle, but it was clear we had identified a huge need and desire for Emory to be a more civically engaged campus,” says James Roland, senior director of civic and community engagement. “As a result, a steering committee was formed that has students, staff and faculty representing both the Atlanta and Oxford campuses that meet throughout the year on a biweekly basis. Although the makeup of the steering committee has changed over the years, every member has helped EVI become an institutional presence and garner national recognition for its work."

Now, EVI has a permanent staff position on campus. 

Gebresilassie, along with student volunteers, engages the campus community in a variety of ways. In addition to tabling, they speak to classes and at sorority and fraternity meetings to make sure students understand the importance of voting. They also host panel discussions and direct students to reliable information where they can learn more about the issues on their state’s ballot. For non-Georgia voters, EVI aims to ensure that students have the voter information they need for their respective states. 

Because of their efforts, Campus Vote Project and the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators named Emory a “Voter Friendly Campus” for the 2021-22 academic year. 

Earlier this year, EVI supported the Office of Government and Community Affairs to help Emory become a DeKalb County polling place. Kendra Price, associate director of community programs, led the charge and was instrumental in working with DeKalb County to bring the polling site to life while getting the campus ready to vote; and Gebresilassie worked to generate enthusiasm among students, faculty and staff about the fact that they may now vote on campus.

"Because Emory University now serves as a polling location, it allows a convenient and accessible opportunity for the Emory community and the voters of DeKalb to cast their vote,” says Price. “I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to work closely with DeKalb County Voter Registration and Elections Office and Emory leadership to make this polling location a reality."

DeKalb County residents can participate in early voting in the 1599 building on the Atlanta campus. During the general election period, students who are registered in Georgia and DeKalb residents for whom Emory is their assigned polling place can also vote on campus.

“As part of community engagement, we encourage our external community to have access to our campus,” says Cameron Taylor, vice president of government and community affairs. “Likewise, we seek to foster our campus’ engagement with the broader community in which we all live, working to meet our external community in the ways in which they most need and want Emory’s participation and engagement. This polling site is important for both of those reasons.”

Collaborate early and often 

Collaboration has been key to the success of EVI. The Emory chapter of the NAACP is a frequent collaborator, and Perez and his fellow officers have their eyes on Nov. 8. They have hosted several events aimed at increasing voter turnout. In addition to tabling at Wonderful Wednesday, they cohosted a National Voter Registration Day event where they gave out farmer’s market vouchers and swag, as well as had a photo booth and DJ.

Alvaro Perez is a fourth-year student from Cuba and president of the Emory NAACP chapter.

Perez, who is an anthropology and biology dual major, says that his passion for social justice inspired him to get involved with the NAACP to fight against racism. As president of the Emory chapter, he wants to create a community where people feel empowered.

"Voting is one of the biggest tools that we have as citizens to make a change," says Perez. "Doing so in community helps people feel more inspired to vote and like they’re making a difference. When people see that they’re not the only one, they feel like they are not alone."

Alvaro Perez, president of the Emory NAACP chapter

Similarly, Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Activists (APIDAA) at Emory hosts events aimed at increasing voter turnout across the Asian diaspora, both on and off campus. Anhhuy Do is the organization’s chief of staff. A third-year political science major and history minor from Nashville, Tennessee, he became politically involved in high school as a member of the Nashville Mayor’s Youth Council. That experience helped him realize the power of his voice, and he wants others to know their power as well.

Anhhuy Do is a third-year student from Nashville, Tennessee and chief of staff for Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Activists (APIDAA) at Emory.

Specifically, in the Asian American community, language barriers and economic hurdles often keep people from voting, which is why APIDAA collaborates with Asian Americans Advancing Justice and New American Pathways to push voter education in metro Atlanta. 

“I never had a strong realization of the power of my racial identity until I came to Emory,” says Do. “I am appreciative of that, because there’s a lot of empowerment that comes from working within racial and multiracial coalitions. Communities are affected by laws and codes on how neighborhoods are structured or immigration. I think Emory students coming together allows us to develop political power, recognize flaws in our society and engage our public officials.”

Both APIDAA and the NAACP, along with Fair Fight Action, will collaborate with EVI for “Party to the Polls” on Oct. 28 to mark the nationally recognized civic holiday Vote Early Day. Starting at 2 p.m. on Asbury Circle, there will be food, music by DJ Labonita and signs for people to carry. At 2:30 p.m., they will start walking to the 1599 building to vote.

Reach beyond the gate

A strong sense of engagement is not limited to the Atlanta campus. At Oxford, Gafnea and Donald Beaudette, assistant professor of political science, and a group of student ambassadors work on the Oxford Votes Initiative (OVI). Like EVI, OVI is nonpartisan and focuses on voter education and registration. 

They work with the Newton County Board of Elections to recruit students, faculty and staff who may be interested in serving as poll workers during this election cycle. They have also partnered with students and faculty on the Georgia State University Newton Campus to make human resources onboarding and training available to their students and Oxford students who want to serve as a poll worker. 

Sophie Schocket, a second-year student from Ohio, got involved with EVI during her first year at Oxford and continues to encourage her peers to vote.

Sophie Schocket, a second-year student from Ohio, helps to organize the student ambassadors for tabling and events. She also helps to recruit volunteers to go door-to-door in residence halls to encourage students to register. Schocket says she became interested in political issues because her parents always voted.

“My parents would take me with them to vote,” says Schocket. “They watched the news in the morning, and I heard them talk about current events. I grew up assuming a certain level of engagement and attention to political issues. It’s a natural part of my day.”

OVI is hosting a voter-education event on Oct. 26 at 6 p.m. on the Oxford Quad. There, students will be able to eat, see mock ballots and experience performances from the dance teams on campus. She says the goal of the event is for students to feel more prepared when they go cast their ballots. 

Vote for your future

As election day approaches on Nov. 8, volunteers on both the Atlanta and Oxford campuses are doing everything they can to increase voter turnout. Banners on light poles ripple in the breeze to encourage people to vote. Student organizations continue to table outside of dining halls to make sure that their peers have a voting plan. 

Tufts University’s Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement found that half of youth 18-29 voted in the 2020 election, showing that young people have the power to shape democracy.

With several civil liberties on the line, Gebresilassie says, “I vote because I see how everything is interconnected and voting is one powerful tool in our toolbox to make a positive impact. It can and will make a difference in addressing problems in our society, of course paired with other tools and actions.”

She adds that she would like to see EVI continue to grow as a national leader in voter mobilization and civic engagement. “I see EVI being a local, national and global resource hub for communities.”


Oct. 26, 6–8 p.m. – OVI event on the Oxford Quad

Oct. 28, 2 p.m. – Party to the Polls on Vote Early Day

Nov. 8, 6–9 p.m. – Emory Election Watch Party sponsored by EVI and Emory Political Science at Harland Cinema