Four years ago, only 17 percent of Pomona College students voted in the midterm election. That’s why Michaela Shelton ’21 and others got involved to help mobilize student voters at Pomona College. Shelton worked closely with co-leader Lucas Carmel ’19, a group of 20 volunteers and with TurboVote, an online tool that helps users take the first step to register to vote and/or request an absentee ballot.
TurboVote reports that about 40 percent of Pomona College students, 703 to be exact, signed up for TurboVote in 2018. Of those 703 sign-ups, 344 students used TurboVote to begin the voter registration process, 388 indicated they would vote by mail and 34 in person.
“When I see people taking action by voting, it tells me that democracy is not dead and that there is still hope for the future,” says Shelton, one of the student leaders who organized a campus-wide nonpartisan voter registration and voter engagement campaign this fall.
“The reason why we were able to reach so many people at Pomona College is because of all the outreach volunteers did, and I am thankful for those who came together to make this happen. Seeing people become motivated to participate in our government by voting is what inspires me to continue doing this crucial work,” says Shelton, who is planning to major in politics.
Shelton, and co-leader Lucas Carmel ’19, organized a team of student volunteers – many of them first-years – to contact their friends and classmates at Pomona through text messages and Facebook Messenger to remind them to register to vote, and to request a mail-in or absentee ballot if needed. The team also provided nonpartisan resources for students to learn about the issues in their districts.
Just a sophomore, Shelton was inspired to help lead the get-out-the-vote efforts on campus when Milo Kremer ’20 put out a call on Facebook to other students to get Pomona to join the ‘All In’ Campus Democracy Challenge, a national awards program that encourages colleges and universities to increase student voting rates.
When the Political Becomes Personal
Asked where her interest in politics comes from, Shelton points to an early memory of her mother and teenage sister waking up at 4 a.m. – her mother to get ready to vote and her sister to volunteer at the polling location. Her mother took Election Day very seriously and passed that trait on to her daughters.
Although Shelton admits she did not wake up at 4 a.m. to follow in her sister’s footsteps, as a high schooler she did volunteer at U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney’s field office in New York, communicating directly with constituents. “I never imagined the amount of people working behind an elected official. That was a cool experience,” says Shelton.
Shelton continued to have cool experiences in high school, including traveling in for the Perspectives on Pomona (POP!) weekend, a fly-in program that brings students from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds to campus. At Pomona that weekend, Shelton met other students who identified as either first-generation and/or low-income but just as importantly, she says, “I felt the Black community was really, really strong and I felt I could connect with students here.”
Once Shelton started her first year at Pomona, she enrolled in a variety of classes to see what whetted her appetite, but it was her ID1 class, taught by Professor Amanda Hollis-Brusky, that hooked her on politics. “I loved the books we read, the memoirs of politicians who shared their stories of what made them run for office, but it was Shirley Chisholm’s memoir – of her also being from New York, of first being an educator and activist and how she ended up in politics – that’s when I first saw myself reflected in the class.”
That shifted Shelton’s whole perspective. “The political became personal for me because it’s affecting real people – the people in my family… because what would my life have been without government resources?”
A Millennial Wave Sweeps Campus
At the beginning of her sophomore year, Shelton saw an opportunity to get the vote out at Pomona and jumped right in.
Shelton and the team of volunteers strategized to reach out to their Pomona classmates on Facebook. Some students didn’t know there was an election, how to get an absentee ballot or were confused about how to participate. Partnering with TurboVote, the process became super easy, says Shelton, because you just fill out basic information and TurboVote sends you what you need.
“A lot of people were thankful for our reminders because it’s so easy to get lost in your coursework. We were here to make this process easier and if you vote during the midterms, it’s more likely that you’ll keep voting,” she says.
“I have a lot of faith in millennials, in people my age. I see a wave of potential, of people who are 18 to 24 who are politically engaged and looking for someone to represent their interests, people who are willing to vote and willing to go to the polls,” says Shelton who adds that it’s even more inspiring to see a wave of young people of color deciding to run for office as well.
“Voting is not just for one type of individual. You don’t have to be wealthy or come from a privileged background. There’s a place for you to vote regardless of your background. Even if you are ineligible to vote, you can encourage others to vote to support your needs,” says Shelton, who was keen on mobilizing Pomona’s first-generation and low-income community to get to the polls.
“If you don’t think there’s someone who represents you, consider that you might be the person to represent yourself and others. It’s time.”