Madison Hillel has hired 12 “voter organizer” interns to help their fellow students register and vote, an initiative that has touched thousands of University of Wisconsin students in the weeks before Election Day, Nov. 3.
The interns started in August and September, and they are each earning a $500 stipend. The primary funder is the Maurice S. Surlow Memorial Fund at the Jewish Community Foundation of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
The effort is aimed at mitigating some of the issues faced by college-age voters. College students are less likely to vote than older citizens, and there can be confusion, especially for a student voting for the first time and living out of state. Also, the pandemic and limited dorm lockdowns led many students to move to off–campus housing, and that can affect residency and further complicate things, according to the student interns.
What the interns are doing
Mikaela Steckelis, 19, is a sophomore and political science and legal studies major from Belleville, just south of Madison. She’s sent hundreds of text messages to fellow students, mostly not Jewish – Madison Hillel is targeting graduate students and students in science, engineering and math, because they’ve been deemed less likely to vote. Steckelis texts from her computer using provided software and lets students know that she’s Mikaela from UW Hillel and asks if they have a plan to vote.
The students on the receiving end do often ignore the text, but those who do respond are generally pretty nice about it, Steckelis said. Some respond with something along the lines of, “I don’t have a plan. I don’t really know what I’m doing.” Steckelis then directs them to resources or offers to help.
Aly Orvis, 20, a junior political science and international studies major from Port Washington and Philadelphia, recalled one text conversation where a student from Chicago wrote back that she didn’t know if she was allowed to register in Wisconsin.
“I told her since she has proof of residence of living in Wisconsin through the university she could register in Wisconsin,” Orvis said. “I walked her through the steps.”
In all, the 12 interns have sent text messages to thousands of fellow students.
“I’ve probably helped 50 or 60 people,” Steckelis said, interviewing in mid-October. “It’s a lot of pushing them to think about voting and pushing them to think about their plan.”
Texting has been a key component, but there’s other work, too. Interns have been making announcements in class and talking up voting within their social circles.
Izzy Schack, 21, a senior from Mequon majoring in community and nonprofit leadership, has been hanging banners promoting voter registration around campus. As a past president of the Chi Omega sorority, she helped organize a competition among fraternities and sororities to see who could register a large number of voters.
“I have students who have been picking up registrations and driving it to the clerk’s office,” said Shelby Fosco, social justice fellow at Madison Hillel, and supervisor of the interns. The students and Fosco have held a weekly strategy meeting to work the problem.
Why do it?
Ten of the interns self-identify as Jewish. Two others joined in because they believe in the work and they enjoyed a Hillel trip to Israel for non-Jewish leaders on campus, Fosco said.
Though more people voting is obviously a social good, there are additional aspects of the effort that Madison Hillel Executive Director Greg Steinberger likes. It’s civic engagement, which is itself engaging for students, and it’s nice to get some cash into student pockets, he said.
“It’s an opportunity for Hillel to have increased value to students during the pandemic,” he said, adding that “it has the interns collaborating with other campus groups.”