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Friday, March 01, 2024
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Voters stand in line to cast their ballot at UW Hillel on Nov. 8, 2022.

Q&A: Deputy director of student voter nonprofit organization discusses the importance of student voter turnout

Jason Rivera, Wisconsin deputy director of Rise, discusses his organization and the efforts they are making to promote student voting for the upcoming general election.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court general election will take place on April 4 and has crucial implications for the future of the state. 

The Supreme Court currently has a 4-3 conservative majority. The election gives liberals the opportunity to flip the ideological makeup in their favor. The race concerns hot button issues such as abortion access, legislative maps and other pressing matters for Wisconsin residents. 

Approximately 21% of the state’s voting age population turned out during the primaries, a large increase from 16% in 2020, according to NBC News

Rise is a student-led nonprofit that prioritizes students’ needs and helps young people participate in democracy. They hire university students to organize campaigns focused on providing affordable college, ending student poverty and increasing student voter turnout. 

The Daily Cardinal spoke with Jason Rivera, Rise’s Wisconsin deputy director, about the impact Rise has made on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus during elections, as well as his hopes for the upcoming general election. 

This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

In your own words, how would you describe Rise and its mission?

Rise has been dedicated to fighting for free college and student basic needs for as long as the organization has existed.

How did you become involved with the organization?

Rise hires college students exclusively, especially to do a lot of the fellow work. I was coming into college after working a voter registration job during the 2020 election, and one of my bosses there asked me to come join them at this other organization. Essentially, it was a super startup back then. It was a group of maybe 10 people total in Wisconsin. 

What are your responsibilities as Rise’s Wisconsin deputy director?

For context, I used to also oversee Oshkosh and Madison before we closed our Oshkosh branch to revamp it for the next election. Currently, I am mostly working on UW-Madison's campus. We also do some work at Madison College as well, but not this election cycle. A lot of my work includes just making sure that Rise is building a foundation and building partnerships with as many different organizations, students and people as we can to establish a presence [and] be an organization that's actually fighting for students. My work is to make sure that happens and to ensure we're running a smooth program. 

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We have a strategic plan as to how we are going to go about the election [and] how we are going about lobbying, and we are making sure that students are involved in every step of the process. 

What is your strategic plan for this upcoming election? 

After speaking with a lot of folks and other organizations, it's been highly noted that a lot of people are not organizing on college campuses, and if they are, they're not doing it effectively. Our plan, along with a coalition that I'm with, is to be on college campuses consistently. 

We are outside every single day throughout the week, Monday to Friday, making sure that people are making a plan to vote and that they're out there speaking to somebody who gives out voter info. We do plan and host events around student basic needs as well to make sure that we're sticking to our true mission.

At the end of the day, a lot of our work, especially during these election times, is super focused on getting out the vote and making sure that we have room in the future to work with people who actually want to put in policies like free college and make lives for students easier.

You mentioned joining the program around the 2020 election. What sort of significant impacts did you see in Wisconsin that Rise had a hand in doing?

In the 2020 election, we reached out to a little over a million students — not just in Wisconsin, but nationwide. We are a national organization. There was a study out in Georgia that’s certified, and it's shown that [Rise] has an increase in voter turnout, pretty significantly actually. I think a good determinant of that was the last election. Rise was the primary organization working on college campuses in Wisconsin. In all the places we were in, we had over 20% increase in turnout for students’ polling locations. 

We did a focus group on a bunch of students, and it showed that a lot of them voted because they saw a tent outside [Memorial Union] saying ‘Go vote!’ and that was us, Rise. We were just giving them the information they need in order to go out and vote.

We also had students mingle with elected officials. We held a listening session where we had 20 elected officials listening to students and the impact of their policies on them. I want to continue doing that. 

What progress has been made so far to increase student voter turnout? Did you see any increase during the primaries?

The primary was actually our test round to see how our efforts would go in terms of progress. The city of Madison only expected 27 people to turn out to vote at Gordon's [Dining and Event Center], and then 512 people voted at Gordon’s in person. It's insane. On top of that, [Rise organizers in Madison] alone have individually gotten 2,000 people to make a plan to vote on election day. 

We've been checking the numbers during early voting at polling locations we are stationed at. At Memorial Union, we checked on a Monday and 50 people voted, and then after we worked on Tuesday, 150 people voted. Seeing those increases and that people are actually going out really does help out in our mission to let us know that we're actually doing good work.

How would you personally encourage students to become more involved in local democracy?

I don't think students realize how much of an impact they have in local government. I think one of the best ways to get involved is honestly just [by] making a plan to vote and sign up for a notification that reminds you when elections are. When elections do come by, there will be somebody from Rise out there on the street, saying like, "Hey, this is how you can help." If you don't know when there are elections, then you're not thinking about voting.

We found in our focus group that a lot of people didn't even know that there was an election coming up on April 4. At some point, it's not really the students’ fault. It's also the fault of the organizations who aren't investing in students and the people who have the influence to make sure that students get to see that information who aren’t doing that.

In general, I would just encourage students to actively try to participate by voting and by reminding themselves when their elections are, but also encourage administrations and organizations to make sure that they reach out to as many students as possible.

Do you believe that students could have a real impact on the upcoming Supreme Court election? What are your hopes for this election?

I believe we absolutely can, and will, have an impact. Even if three campuses in Madison have students turn out to vote, it would change the entire election.

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