Sam Bernstein is a senior at American University who started conducting voter registration drives while still in high school. He’s also an EMT, political science major, and all around awesome fellow. Sam is working with TurboVote to reach students at American Universtity, and this is the first post in a series on civic engagement on campus.

American University is one of the most politically active campuses in America. Candidates, nonprofits and office holders routinely use American University as a venue to tout the value of civic participation.  As part of TurboVote’s expansion to colleges and universities nationwide, I sat down with student leaders at American University to learn about roadblocks that prevent them from voting.

I came away impressed and struck by something: it’s not that students are apathetic—on the contrary, many students are politically engaged and mindful of the power of their vote. They just haven’t been given the tools they need to make their voices heard.

When it finally occurred to me that maybe I should get my own absentee ballot, it was too late.

Enter Bart Thompson.

Bart spends about a third of his time working with underserved children as a Head Start program team leader in Washington DC; a third representing the class of 2012 as a senator in student government; and a third working on projects ranging from political campaigns in Virginia to interning in The House of Representatives.

Somewhere in there he also manages to tackle his studies and generally be a stand up guy.  It seemed natural to think that if any student was the exception to the rule of low rates of voting amongst students in college it would be Bart. I decided to ask him some questions.

TurboVote: Tell us about your experience voting from campus, how do you try to stay involved politically?
Bart: “The last election season, I voted for student government, but I am really ashamed to say that I did not vote back home. And this is actually at the same time that I was working on a political campaign twenty five hours a week in Arlington, Virginia. So there could be no excuse I wasn’t thinking about politics. The problem was I was thinking about someone else’s politics, and when the time came around—when it finally occurred to me that maybe I should get my own absentee ballot—it was too late.”
TurboVote: Did you know what to do? Did you know how to go about voting back home?
Bart: (Laughs) “No—I called my mom—she said it was too late. I mean it’s ridiculous, because I have a script in front of me helping people in Arlington get their absentee ballot, but you know it’s all different all over the country.”

Bart hesitates a bit. It is clear he is a bit remorseful about not voting, but he continues:

It’s so bad. I’m literally spending 25 hours a week convincing other people to go vote and I didn’t vote.

Then it hits me: there is nothing wrong with Bart. Frankly, if something is wrong with Bart, we may have a much bigger problem.

Bart, like many of his peers, cares about being civically involved. Yet, he doesn’t always vote come election time. The current vote-by-mail infrastructure in this country has become so obtuse and inaccessible that it has gone from being an enabler of political participation to an obstacle. At TurboVote, we know Bart wants to vote, but quite literally doesn’t know how, and want to change that.

Starting next week, over the course of a series of blog posts I’m going to take you behind the scenes as we start that process at American University. It is not easy work, nor is it guaranteed to succeed, but our hope is that it can serve as a guide for students across the country like Bart. Students that realize they aren’t apathetic, ill-informed or powerless.

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