‘Empower our community with knowledge’: Pomona Votes leads voting engagement efforts

A composite image of two female college students.
Michaela Shelton PO ’21 and Naomi Tilles PO ’22 lead Pomona Votes, a student voter registration and turnout effort. (Courtesy: Portraits courtesy of respective persons)

Vote. From social media posts to national news outlets to everyday conversations, this call to action is in the spotlight more than ever. The 2020 presidential election has brought a renewed sense of urgency that is expected to bring voters to the polls in droves. 

Michaela Shelton PO ’21 and Naomi Tilles PO ’22 have spearheaded the effort at Pomona College to increase voter representation. Working in conjunction with Pomona faculty and staff, the partners have been able to increase voting percentages. They also gained recognition from the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, a national awards program that recognizes students’ commitment to increasing voter turnout. 

Young people have notoriously borne the brunt of complaints about voting behaviour. With a startling 17 percent turnout among Pomona students in the 2014 midterm election and a 51 percent turnout in the 2012 presidential election, that stereotype was becoming a reality. The focus on civic engagement and social justice values at Pomona did not seem to align with the low voting records either. Alarmed by the trends she was seeing, Shelton set out to forge a future of engagement and educated voting among her peers. 

Shelton began working on Pomona voter engagement as a sophomore in 2018 when she joined others in the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge. As she learned more about Pomona’s voting history, she started to figure out what the proper civic engagement strategy looked like. She eventually met Lucas Carmel PO ’19, who would partner with her in setting the foundation for the Pomona Votes initiative. However, once Carmel and others graduated, Shelton not only filled the space — she customized it with Tilles. 

In the fall of 2018, Tilles joined Shelton in her outreach and voting education efforts. As a first-year at the time, she was eager to join the effort and build upon her previous experience in government and community engagement. Shelton admitted that having first-years in the program was extra special given their ambitious and energetic nature. 

“And we kind of started off with primarily first-year volunteers, because we found that they were super engaged,” Shelton said. 

Tilles and Shelton formed a partnership that would dramatically alter the voting percentage of Pomona. Through new and innovative methods of voter engagement and registration, they helped to increase the midterm voting percentage from 17 percent in 2014 to 50.4 percent in 2018. 

“So we think this is pretty disappointing for, you know, a campus that is so politically active, and people are obviously really passionate about a lot of political issues we would expect to see or voting. But it’s important to realize that there are a lot of barriers for students to access their vote,” Tilles said. 

Part of Pomona Votes’ strategy is to distinguish those barriers and find sustainable and far-reaching solutions. Leading up to the 2018 midterms, the partners enlisted the help of other students and reached out to students on campus. 

“And we plan to do voter engagement for registration in September and just follow up on outreach in October making sure people got their absentee ballots and knew where they could vote in person. And then for gearing up to election day, we just checked in with the fun people to make sure they submitted their ballots that they were prepared to go vote for election day,” said Shelton. 

The online learning format forced the partners to rethink their outreach methods. Zoom fatigue, increased screen time and the constant flow of emails left most feeling sick of screens and impersonal interactions. Thus, Pomona Votes created an outreach program based on human-to-human connection. With a master list of Pomona students in one hand and ambition in the other, Pomona Votes aims to reach out to every Pomona student.

They have found that individuals are more receptive to their friends’ or family’s encouraging them to vote than a mass email or text chain. Their strategy includes following up on those that registered to vote as well in an effort to triple the vote.

“I’m also planning to ask them on election day if they’re willing to remind three friends to go out and vote, just so we can try and triple our impact,” Shelton said. 

Part of the duo’s success can be traced back to their partnership with voter registration site TurboVote. This campus-specific site makes the process of registering more manageable and easy to understand. This resource is especially crucial as this year marks the first time many students will be able to vote in a presidential election. According to Tilles, since 2018, 1596 Pomona students have used TurboVote to register or get voting information. 

The 2020 election comes with great responsibility in the eyes of Shelton and Tilles. Both are conscious of empowering students in their own beliefs and the power of their vote. As a nonpartisan organization, they recognize the awesome power of the people in a democratic system. However, in this especially divisive election, Pomona Votes still values its original goals of student engagement despite party lines. 

“We want to empower our community with knowledge,” Shelton said. “And I think that’s what makes the nonpartisan engagement worth it.” 

The qualitative impact of the duo’s efforts will not be fully known until after the November election, yet some key indicators already point to early success. Aside from the focus on registering voters, the partners are also focused on community engagement. They plan on hosting Zoom watch parties for the debates over the month of October. 

With a vast array of experience under their belts and a bright political future ahead, the community leaders are looking to the future to enact change on a greater level. Whether that be working on voting campaigns or going directly into partisan politics, it’s clear that this initiative will not fade in their hearts or minds. 

“[In] whatever community I become a part of, I want to make sure I’m still a resource of information and support for people exercising their right to vote,” Tilles said. 

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