Published on February 27, 2020
BY LAUREN GOODMAN
In the early hours of Feb. 18, students awoke before sunrise to meet for pancakes and coffee at Kerbey Lane Cafe. Aiming to increase civic engagement on campus, the group headed over to campus to be some of the first voters in the 2020 primary elections.
“Breakfast and Ballots” was an event hosted by TX Votes, a University of Texas at Austin student organization dedicated to increasing student awareness during election season. A dozen students mingled over various breakfast items before casting their votes at the Flawn Academic Center.
Selina Eshragi, founder of the Austin chapter of March for Our Lives, a student-led movement supporting legislation to prevent gun violence, said that she decided to attend the event despite being up the entire night before.
“I have a lot of caffeine in me,” Eshragi said. “I've been excited to do this for a week. I would never wake up early if it wasn't something that I was super excited for.”
TX Votes President Anthony Zhang said he thought it would be more fun to go as a group for breakfast before the first day of early voting. The event was open to the student population to attend by the organization.
“I personally always enjoyed elections, like the horse race, polling, swings, margins and all that kind of stuff,” Zhang said. “Once I got into (TX Votes), I thought it was important for everyone else to exercise their rights.”
Kassie Phebillo, communication studies graduate student and TX Votes program coordinator, said that one of TX Votes’ main goals is ensuring that every eligible student has the opportunity to vote.
“(TX Votes) goes hard during voter registration,” Phebillo said. “I'm a first-generation college student … Those college students who are first-gen are underrepresented, and I have a knack for this. It makes a lot of sense to go this direction toward voter engagement in higher education spaces.”
TX Votes regularly partners with The Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, an institute researching new ways to increase civic education in college students.
Roderick Hart, a founding director of The Annette Strauss Institute and professor in communication studies, said the institute was founded to gain an understanding of the political messages being sent out and their impact on people's attitudes.
Young adults are an undependable voting bloc Hart said partly because students may feel that they aren’t educated enough.
“A lot of people… don't feel that they should be voting because they don't have the knowledge required to be a really good citizen,” Hart said. “That sounds kind of hokey, but… a lot of young people say ‘Look, I just don't know enough… I don't have the time or interest to follow it. I don't want to have put a vote in because that would screw up the democracy.’”
Radio-television-film junior Angela Chesser, who did not attend “Breakfast and Ballots,” said she won’t be voting because of her frustration with the popularity contest of the election.
“Politics to me, it's kind of a bunch of empty promises,” Chesser said. “I equate it with religion in a way where you're like…‘Oh, God, go away.’ That's how I feel with these people campaigning. I'm like, ‘Just leave me alone.’... Earbuds in. Look down. Avoid it.”
Chesser said she also doesn’t want to vote because she doesn’t know enough about the candidates.
“I don't just want to vote for someone if I don't know anything that they stand for just because I've heard of their name,” Chesser said.
The voting rate for UT students was 56.5%, according to the 2016 campus report from Tufts University’s National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement. Hart said one solution for improving voter turnout in young adults is having better civic education earlier in school.
“The school systems don't require civics education like they did in the past...It's a shameful condition,” Hart said. “When (people) wind up getting jobs and having kids and then they start to see the impact of politics on their lives, they are more likely to pay attention.”
Eshragi, a chemical engineering and radio-television-film junior, said her political activism started in 2018 after she lost a friend to gun violence.
“Seeing that (the March For Our Lives) movement was driven by youth is really inspiring to me,” Eshragi said. “I think that's when I caught the bug… Ever since then, despite the fact my majors are totally unrelated to civic engagement or politics… I'm really into politics.”
With Eshragi already knowledgeable of the candidates and issues on the ballot, she only had one more taxing decision left of the morning — choosing what to order from the menu.
“I’m going to go with the chocolate chip pancakes,” Eshragi said. “Although sometimes it's an omelet, and I’m really still in the decision-making phase right now.”