two student volunteers sit at a table to help other students register to vote

Ben Gilsdorf ’21 and Claire Taylor ’23 lead a voter registration drive for the student group, AC Votes on National Voter Registration Day on September 21, 2020. Photo by Hantong Wu ’23.

It’s crunch time for Ben Gilsdorf ’21. There are papers that need submitting. Presentations to be made. Meetings to attend (in person and virtually). And there is a week left to get everything done.

Nope, we’re not referring to classwork or Gilsdorf’s thesis (although he’s juggling both). He, along with other members of the organization Amherst College Votes and several campus partners, are working day and night to help students fill out voter registration forms and, ultimately, learn how to cast their ballots in this year’s election.

To that end, Gilsdorf, head AC Votes student organizer, and members of the group have diligently staffed a table outside Valentine Dining Hall and Keefe Campus Center every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for weeks, printing and photocopying forms, mailing postcards to students taking classes remotely, showing their classmates on campus how to submit voter information online and adding postage to envelopes, among many other efforts.

“Voting and exercising one’s civic duty is something students can—and should—do as a bare minimum as citizens in the United States,” Gilsdorf says. “It’s a way for young people to be heard. It’s a way for us to have a say in how we are governed. ”

a student volunteer holds a sign that says, I register people to vote because everyone deserves to be heard

Ben Gilsdorf ’21. Photo by Olivia Ward ’23.

Gilsdorf has plenty of previous experience helping classmates to be active participants in U.S. democracy. Prior to the 2018 midterms, he lugged an “ancient,” heavy printer to locations around campus in an effort to register his peers.

Director of Student Activities Paul Gallegos shares Gilsdorf’s passion for getting out the vote. Prior to the 2018 midterms, he’d seen the results of a study of Amherst student voters. It found that while 62.4 percent of Amherst College students were registered to vote in the 2014 midterm elections, only 15.2 percent did so. The research also showed that the voting rate for students at that time was only 9.5 percent.

So Gallegos and several colleagues around campus “decided to rethink our collective approach to civic engagement,” he says. “Not just during the general or midterm elections, but for all areas where the community can use the power of the vote to voice values and compel the direction of this country.”

In collaboration with the College’s administration and other departments, the Office of Student Activities and the Association of Amherst Students created the 2018 ALL IN Democracy Challenge Action Plan. It aimed to incorporate civic engagement into orientation programming each fall, to maintain the College’s high voter registration rate and to increase voter turnout.

mammoth wears button that says I voted

The efforts of Gilsdorf and AC Votes are succeeding. More than 60 percent of Amherst students are now registered to vote, and that number is still increasing. Gilsdorf says the group has set a realistic goal of registering 80 percent of students, but, in the end, their objective is loftier than that.

“We want to do our part to enable every student, regardless of where they come from, who they are or whether they are living on or off campus, to have the ability to vote,” he says. “It’s an important right that we have living in the United States. And these days it’s more important than ever.”

Watch Gildsdorf and AC Votes colleagues Maya Foster ’23 and Virginia Ryan ’22 talk about their work and civic engagement with President Biddy Martin in three separate videos on the College website.