W'Engage goal: political engagement

By Luanne Williams
Joseph Ellis

In the midst of one of the most divisive and controversial election seasons in the history of the nation, political science professor Joseph Ellis has a simple two-part message for Wingate students: Your vote matters – whether you cast it locally or in your home state – and your civic involvement should last well beyond Nov. 3.

Director of the University’s W’Engage program since last November, Ellis announced late last month that the program, which offers study/travel experiences aimed at connecting second-year students with their local communities, will increasingly focus on civic engagement.

“This includes efforts at voter registration, non-partisan political education and awareness, and in time, speakers’ series and workshops devoted to enhancing political engagement on campus and beyond,” he wrote in a memo to faculty and staff.

Chelsea Kaufman

Ellis and fellow faculty member Chelsea Kaufman hosted an online Voting 101 Lyceum on Sept. 16 that attracted some 300 students. They answered questions about voter registration, absentee ballots, early voting and more. Since then, Ellis has led a voter-registration push for the women’s basketball team and has answered a number of questions regarding elections.

“Our students have some very basic questions dealing with issues such as the differences in party ideologies or how the electoral college works,” he says. “Of course, the fact that we are in an election season brings a lot of energy to the issues.”

Amid constant media chatter about everything from Election Day Covid concerns to “naked” ballots, Ellis wants students to tune out the noise and move forward with their plans to vote, knowing that help is available should they need it.

“I encourage students, if they live on campus and are mainly concerned about the presidential race, to just do same-day registration and vote early at the Wingate Community Center,” he says. “But if they want to vote in their home state, I will work with them on a case-by-case basis to be sure they can cast their ballot.”

That ballot, he hopes, is just the beginning.

“Civic involvement in our communities is about voting, but it’s also about being politically literate, reading trustworthy news sources, posing political questions in fair and non-partisan ways,” Ellis says. “The real test is what happens on Nov. 4, when everyone has voted. That’s when you can’t get complacent; you have to read and follow the news and care about local issues. Civic engagement needs to be a lifelong discipline of sorts, regardless of who is in office.”

His goal is to help students engage in a balanced way: not becoming complacent about the news, but also not letting it become too big a part of their lives.

Voting is your superpower poster.

“This is not to encourage people to be on social media 24 hours a day or to be addicted to news,” he says. “It’s about meaningful interaction in your community – staying in tune with what is going on without being consumed by it.”

For now, he’s hopeful that students who plan to vote in person on Election Day will register before North Carolina’s deadline, which is Friday. He also expects many to take advantage of early voting between Oct. 15 and Oct. 31.

“For now, the big push is registration and getting students to the polls,” Ellis says. “Then the next challenge will be sustaining an environment where civic engagement matters.”

To learn more about voting, students can check out this video, from the non-partisan organization You Can Vote.

Oct. 6, 2020