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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

New voting hubs help college students vote

Western Washington University students Nathalie Wagler, left, and Adah Barenburg assisted students and members of the public who stopped by the campus Student Engagement Hub to vote on Election Day in November 2020.  (Courtesy of Nathalie Wagler)

When the Washington State Legislature passed a bill to improve student accessibility to voting, most people didn’t know COVID-19 still would be turning our lives upside down when the 2020 general election rolled around.

But in early November 2020, the virus still was raging. Classrooms, laboratories and lecture halls were empty. Most classes were offered online.

Nathalie Wagler, an environmental science student at Western Washington University, said the university resembled a ghost town. Nevertheless, students and the public turned to the campus to register, print out their ballots and turn them in on Election Day.

“We ended up helping about 80 people that day,” said Wagler, who helped set up Western’s Student Engagement Hub. “I think it turned out wonderfully, and we were really happy with it.”

The creation of 10 student engagement centers – or hubs – was the cornerstone of the Voting Opportunities Through Education Act the Legislature passed in March 2020.

The bill also resulted in hubs at Washington State University Tri-Cities in Benton County, WSU Vancouver in Clark County, the University of Washington and the University of Washington at Bothell in King County, Central Washington University in Kittitas County, the University of Washington at Tacoma in Pierce County, Eastern Washington University in Spokane County, The Evergreen State College in Thurston County and Washington State University in Whitman County.

Whatcom County Auditor Diana Bradrick said her office provided training so students and others could access VoteWA, an online site for voting assistance. Her office also helped them get a replacement ballot online and enabled students to connect with the auditor’s office to register.

Bradrick said her office followed protocol to ensure the integrity of the ballots.

“The ballot drop boxes were sealed by two people with a sealed log, and they were treated like any other official drop box, secured in place and serviced by my staff in teams of two,” Bradrick said.

Wagler, who is from Billings, said a number of people needed help.

“We had a lot of folks who needed to re-register, people whose ballots had been sent to their parents’ home.”

COVID-19 did require adjustments to the original plans.

“It created a big challenge,” Wagler said. “Campus was essentially closed, and we had only a small number of students living on campus.”

While some campus hubs were open a few days leading up to and including Election Day, Western’s hours were limited.

“The auditor suggested we just do Election Day and we were open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.,” Wagler explained.

Despite the reduced hours, people valued the service.

“A lot of people said they wouldn’t have voted if the hub hadn’t been there,” Wagler said.

The majority of Western students are not from Bellingham, she added.