Emma Baumgarten, SIS/BA ’26, can remember when the impact of voting was made real to her.
It was during the last US presidential election in 2020. Baumgarten, who was too young to vote at the time, remembers watching her parents carefully fill out their absentee ballots.
“I think that was one of the moments where I was, like, ‘wow, voting exists, and it really can change the outcome of whatever you want the outcome to be,” Baumgarten said. “But it also goes deeper than that, because the people and the policies that you're voting for are things that actually can affect you in real life or can affect people that you know—not just yourself.”
When it came time to register to vote for the midterm election in 2022, Baumgarten was prepared. Not only was it her first experience voting in a national election, but she needed to do so by absentee ballot.
As a resident of New York, Baumgarten said the process for requesting and submitting her ballot was simple. It arrived with ample amount of time to fill it out, came to the correct address, and could be submitted without a witness or notary.
“I think going through that process, I realized I can actually make a difference, and my voice does matter,” Baumgarten said. “I’m very passionate about [voting] because it really is being the change you want to see.”
Since coming to AU, Baumgarten’s passion for voting has been a catalyst for her involvement with both AU Votes and Voters of AU. We sat down with Baumgarten to talk about her SIS journey, her passion for voting, and her involvement as vice president of Voters of AU.
Translating Passion to Practice
Baumgarten was a self-described “Model UN kid” in high school, and her involvement in the club ultimately kickstarted her interest in international relations. When she started looking for colleges, finding a school with a highly regarded international studies program was a top priority.
With its high ranking for undergraduate international studies, SIS “kept coming up to the top of every list that you could ever look at for international studies,” and it seemed like the “best place” to continue her education, Baumgarten said.
After arriving on campus for her first semester in fall 2022, it didn’t take long for Baumgarten to get involved in AU Votes, a nonpartisan, campus-wide effort to empower students to vote in state, local, and national elections. Baumgarten first heard about the organization through her first-year advisor Jacob Wilson, who told her about volunteer opportunities with AU Votes.
“AU Votes began in summer 2022, when a small group staff, faculty, and a graduate student met to find ways to work together to empower AU students to vote in the midterm elections,” Wilson, who instructs and advises the American University Experience program, said. “As the fall semester began, I invited students in my AUx1 class to volunteer during Absentee Ballot Days or stop by and get assistance requesting their ballots. Emma graciously volunteered and, in the weeks, leading up to the election, she offered to help with the AU Votes Instagram account.”
As a volunteer, Baumgarten helped hand out flyers, spread information about how students can register to vote, and create social media posts. Baumgarten also led AU Votes’ midterm election day programming on the quad, where she handed out “I Voted” stickers and oversaw an “I Voted Because” project in which students could write down why they voted and pin it up on a clothesline.
After receiving positive feedback from peers about AU Votes following the midterm election, Baumgarten and a few other students began thinking—what if there was a student-run organization at AU dedicated to empowering voters?
“We thought, ‘hey, this is all about the students; why not put it in the hands of the students?’” Baumgarten said. “So, after that, we started the process to register to become a club, and that’s how Voters of AU started.”
New Club on Campus
Voters of AU is a new student organization that launched this semester dedicated to empowering students to vote. Baumgarten, who serves as vice president and social media director of the club, emphasized that the group is nonpartisan.
“Voters of AU is not really about politics, and I think that could be a misconception about the club,” Baumgarten said. “It’s just about voting, and you can separate the two. It doesn’t matter where you fall on the [political] spectrum as long as you are encouraging your peers and empowering yourself to vote.”
“We don’t care who you vote for; we just hope that you vote and feel good about doing it,” she added.
The club aims to “bring together a group of people who are very passionate about voting and encouraging students to vote” in local, state, and national elections, Baumgarten explained. The group hopes to act as a resource for students by keeping track of important elections happening across the country and encouraging students to register to vote. Baumgarten also hopes to eventually hold club events leading up to important elections, including events that can inform students about candidates.
The new student organization signed up over 130 students interested in the club in the first few weeks of classes, according to Wilson. The group held its first-ever general body meeting September 19.
Looking Ahead to 2024
Heading into the 2024 US presidential election, it's estimated that voters under age 45 could comprise as much as half of the voting electorate, according to Brookings. The candidates running for president know this, and it’s driven recent efforts to engage with Millennials and Gen Z voters.
In a recent survey focused on understanding perspectives of young Americans ages 18-34 on politics, public service, and community engagement, AU’s Sine Institute of Policy & Politics found that one in four say they are undecided how they will vote in 2024. With more than a year to go until the presidential election, the survey found that a “large plurality don’t think the outcome of the election will matter significantly in their day-to-day lives and half admit they’re not yet especially motivated to vote.”
People in the US aged 18 are eligible to vote, but people still must register in order to exercise the right. Baumgarten stressed the importance for AU students to register to vote so their “voice is heard.” For 2023-2024, American University has been designated a voter-friendly campus.
“The president is someone who represents America on a global stage, and they’re there to serve the people,” Baumgarten said. “But if there isn’t a total voice of the people—meaning that not everyone’s voting and getting engaged—the president won’t reflect the majority.”
She later added: “My generation, Gen Z, I think we’re kind of living in a time of constant change, and because change is happening so often, I just think it’s really important to be able to vote for people you think will be able to handle that [change] in the best way.”
With many students becoming eligible to vote while they are in college, Baumgarten said she is “behind the mission of Voters of AU to empower students because this is the time when you start building habits and becoming a socially and politically aware citizen.”
After graduation, Baumgarten does not know exactly how voting will fit into her life in the future, but one thing is for sure—she knows she’ll always be an informed voter.
“I do see myself being an informed voter [in the future] because it’s not just young people who need to get involved—it’s people of all ages, because you really don’t know when or what policy is going to affect your life,” said Baumgarten.