National Voter Registration Day may be Sept. 19, but Marley Fishburn ’24, M.P.P. ’25 works year-round to encourage her fellow students at William & Mary to become active voters.
Fishburn, a member of the university’s Voter Engagement Committee and public policy major, was honored earlier this year by All In for her efforts. She was one of 175 students nationwide to be named to the organization’s Student Voting Honor Roll for going “above and beyond to advance nonpartisan student voter registration, education and turnout efforts in their communities.”
Democracy is one of four main initiatives in the university’s Vision 2026 strategic plan, and the university is designated as a Voter Friendly Campus. The student voting rate at William & Mary is higher than the national average, according to a study by the Institute of Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University. Their most recent survey shows that 82.4% of eligible students voted on Election Day in 2020, significantly higher than the average of 66% across institutions. Additionally, 89.2% of W&M students who were registered to vote participated in the 2020 election, and 92% of students were registered to vote.
In recognition of National Voter Registration Day, W&M News talked with Fishburn recently about the importance of voting and the work that she and others are doing to encourage it.
Q. Why is promoting voter registration so important to you, and what work have you done around it?
A. We live in a country where disinformation and populism run rampant and growing feelings of helplessness and hopelessness create a culture where people disregard their civic duty to vote. Young people especially are poised to create rumblings through a political system that has yet to acknowledge their power, and empowering them to vote, become educated voters and support their communities is imperative to creating a brighter future for everyone. I have worked with William & Mary’s Voter Engagement Committee (VEC) since 2021 and as a democracy fellow for the Campus Vote Project (CVP is a non-partisan non-profit that promotes student voting engagement and leadership that the VEC partners with). Through these roles, I have planned voter registration drives, a city council public forum, a civic engagement open house, an educational lecture and panel discussion on the 26th Amendment, a democratic dialogues workshop and numerous informational campaigns for our Instagram account.
Q. What does W&M’s nonpartisan Voter Engagement Committee do, and what is your role on the team? What have you learned as a member?
A. William & Mary’s Voter Engagement Committee seeks to encourage students to take an active and informed role in democracy through educational opportunities and leadership. I originally joined the team my sophomore year as their social media director. In this role I created our Instagram account and all of the promotional materials for our events. I wanted to create informative and engaging materials that would encourage students to learn more and take action. My junior year, I took on more of a leadership role as the Campus Vote Project’s democracy fellow for William & Mary and a programing director for the VEC. That year, I also worked as the Student Assembly’s secretary of public affairs. During this time, I was able to pool resources from Student Assembly, the Campus Vote Project and the Office of Community Engagement to create and initiate all of the wonderful events I listed above.
Q. What work is the team doing this semester to encourage people to register and then vote, no matter what their political party may be?
A This semester, we are hosting our annual National Voter Registration Day tabling event on Sadler terrace on Tuesday, Sept. 19. We are partnering with the Williamsburg chapter of the League of Women Voters and the Williamsburg City Registrar’s Office to provide students with resources to register to vote, update their registration status so they can vote here in Williamsburg, request absentee ballots and answer any questions. A big push we have been making is to provide students with all the resources they need to decide whether they want to vote here in Williamsburg or keep their registration status at home. This is a big decision and not one that is usually at the forefront of student’s minds, especially freshmen who are adjusting to so many new things. At this event, we also give out T-shirts, which I designed, and tons of pizza to encourage students to stop by and learn a little more about their civic duty.
Q. As the director of social media for the team, how are you leveraging social media to encourage voter registration?
A. When I was the director of social media, one of my goals was to create brand awareness to help get our name out there and establish a unique voice for the committee. I did a ton of research on Virginia elections to promote informational campaigns, reminders about deadlines, countdowns to election day and promotions for our events. I also created a Voting Resource Hub that is linked in our bio on Instagram. The hub serves as a one stop shop of voting resources for the student on the go. It can be confusing navigating state voting websites especially as a new voter, so the Hub seeks to streamline that process and put resources right into student’s hands. Students at W&M utilize Instagram to learn about student happenings, what’s going on on campus and how they can get involved (or get some free food). Because of this, the committee and I were very intentional to create a consistent and engaging social media presence to receive the most student engagement.
Q. Democracy is one of the core initiatives of W&M’s Vision 2026 strategic plan. How are voter registration efforts on campus advancing democracy?
A. The first step towards actualizing our democratic rights is to actively participate in democracy, and you cannot do that without being registered to vote! Right now it is more important than ever to make sure student voices are heard loud and clear. There is no better way to do that than to vote!
Q. What do you tell people who think that voting doesn’t matter or who aren’t interested in voting for other reasons?
A. It is incredibly important to always hear people out to learn what their stories are in order to understand why they have that view on voting. We are all complex people, and navigating our democracy is sometimes really difficult. The best thing we can do for each other is to take time to see each other’s humanity and create dialogues in which we can learn from each other and teach each other. No one wins when we shut down and refuse to engage.
Q. How has your voter registration advocacy intersected with your academic studies in public policy? And has it affected your career plans?
A. I absolutely love my academics at William & Mary. The interdisciplinary academic opportunities provided have allowed me to explore multiple areas of policy, art, civic engagement and philosophy. My advocacy has provided me with necessary and intriguing context for my policy perspectives and goals. This semester, I began taking courses for my accelerated master’s in public policy, and I hope to one day work to create climate policy and sustainable policy that advocates for disproportionately affected communities and protects our public lands. My work with the VEC has reminded me that the basis of our democracy is the people who vote, not the individuals who are elected.
Q. You were recognized by All In earlier this year for your work around student voting. What was your reaction to receiving that honor?
A. I was so incredibly humbled and thankful for the honor! I have been working with the Campus Vote Project and the VEC for so long that they all feel like family to me, and I felt so honored and appreciative when receiving this recognition. I never expect anything in return for my advocacy work because I know how important it is to have dedicated people who put in the work to make change. I am so thankful for the other student leaders in the VEC that have helped me along the way and for the guidance of the Office of Community Engagement and the Office of Student Leadership and Development.
Q. How can others encourage voter registration on campus and beyond? How can your fellow students get involved?
A. The first thing you can do is check your registration status and show up on election day! Now that we don’t have classes on election day, it is easier than ever to get out the vote. If you are interested in local politics, I know for a fact that the city council members of Williamsburg are more than happy to talk to students and learn more about student interests. Additionally, each semester the VEC hosts info sessions for students to get involved in our leadership and planning processes, so keep an eye out for those! At the end of the day, it is not just our right, but our duty to vote, and it is our responsibility to be informed and engaged when we do.
Erin Jay, Senior Associate Director of University News