Get out the vote: How and why students are becoming political activists

By: Tayler Shaw

People passing by braced themselves as they walked down the hallway of the University Memorial Center, a central building on the CU Boulder campus. Students lined up along each side of the hallway to ask not only if the passer voted, but who they voted for. On one side stood three women: Lesley Renneker, Amy Sullivan and Sophia Sickling, the representatives of Buffs for Warren, a student organization associated with the presidential candidacy of Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Surrounding them were 10 students, both undergraduate and graduate, who represented Buffs for Bernie, a CU Boulder student organization dedicated to supporting the presidential bid of Sen. Bernie Sanders.

 

March 3, otherwise known as Super Tuesday, had arrived. It was the final day that Colorado residents could vote in the Democratic primary, with the polls closing at 7 p.m. It was also the last day of voting for 13 other U.S. states and one U.S. territory. In a race that required 1,991 delegates to win the nomination, 1,357 delegates were at stake.

 

Ultimately, neither group would have a winning candidate, as both Sanders and Warren have since dropped out of the presidential race. But despite its competitive stereotype, politics is not always about winning. It can also be about perseverance, collaboration and hope. For these students, the presidential candidates are not their only inspiration for getting involved; it’s the belief that they can help build a better future.

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Buffs for Bernie and Buffs for Warren members pose along the hallway of the UMC in Boulder, Colorado on Tuesday, March 3, 2020.

However, the process of building a newer, brighter future requires time and collaboration. While voting is a powerful way to influence change, the turnout among young voters is lacking. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, voters aged 18-29 years old in the 2016 presidential election had a turnout rate of 46.1%, while those aged 65 and older had a rate of 70.9%. This year, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement reported that youth turnout on Super Tuesday varied from 5% to 19% based on their findings in 11 of the Super Tuesday states. Considering the limited youth political participation, Buffs for Bernie and Buffs for Warren members had the primary goal of getting out the vote, and March 3 was their last chance in Colorado.                                                                              

The question “Hey, have you voted yet?” frequently echoed down the hallway, followed by a “For Elizabeth?” or a “For Bernie?” At the Buffs for Warren table, Renneker, Sullivan and Sickling stood with signs and stickers. Buffs for Bernie had more resources available, including flyers, small pins, a small figurine of Sanders and the option to take a photo with a standup cutout board of Sanders.

 

“Come take photos with our future president,” said Spencer Coudal, a member of Buffs for Bernie, as students passed by. He was referring to the Sanders cutout placed near him. A few seconds later, someone yelled “Oh no!” as the Sanders cutout fell to the ground.

 

“Did he just have another heart attack?” asked Sickling, referring to a heart attack that Sanders had in October of 2019. The tension in the room instantly rose, as the health and age of Sanders, who is 78, was a hot topic.

 

“Dude!” said Sullivan to Sickling. She reminded Sickling to represent the campaign well—something that can be hard to do, especially in tense moments.

 

“You should convince Elizabeth Warren to drop out of the race and stop splitting the progressive vote,” yelled a woman passing through the hallway. It was 15 minutes before the polls closed.  

 

“We should stop telling women to drop out,” Sickling responded.

 

“That is not what we are saying,” several members of the Buffs for Bernie table responded to the student, even though they secretly agreed that Warren should drop out.

 

While not all members of Buffs for Warren and Buffs for Bernie got along, there were moments of unity that stood out above all else. At one point, members of both clubs raised their hands to create a tunnel in the hallway for passers to walk through, celebrating when people said that they had voted. After the polls closed, Colt Shelby, a Buffs for Bernie member, approached the Buffs for Warren table to express his appreciation of their work.

 

“Progressives, we’ve got to stand together so that we don’t just, like, get shafted. So thanks for doing your thing,” said Shelby to the Buffs for Warren members. Sickling and Renneker thanked him, and Sickling said she appreciated him as well.

 

It was a sweet ending note to an intense day that represented months of hard work. And for many of these students, Super Tuesday wasn’t just about the months spent campaigning—it was about their future. 

 

The driving motivation for students becoming politically active typically begins with a contempt for certain aspects of society, followed by a motivation to implement change. Buffs for Warren and Buffs for Bernie are two of four student clubs at CU Boulder dedicated to a 2020 presidential candidate, in addition to Yang Gang and Students for Trump. While the organizations vary in the candidate they support, they each have a motivated team of students standing up for something and usually someone.

 

Renneker, a sophomore studying political science and integrative physiology and the founder of Buffs for Warren, stood for several people, including her twin sister and her grandma. Renneker’s twin is gay, and while Renneker said her sister has the support of their family, their hometown community in Dallas, Texas was not as open.

 

“She struggles going back home, feeling like she can never be herself, really,” Renneker said.

 

In addition to social justice, one of the main issues Renneker cares about is health care—a personal issue for her and her family. Renneker’s grandma, who passed away last May, had dementia and several strokes. Her family decided to put her grandma in a nursing home to get adequate care. However, their family insurance did not fully cover the care, creating financial stress. 

 

“I mean my family is really lucky. We didn’t—we weren’t devastated by these medical emergencies,” said Renneker. “But that’s not something every American can say. And I just think that really kind of sucks—like, big time.”

 

Renneker isn’t alone. Shay Mannik, a freshman majoring in political science who is one of the four campus core leaders of Buffs for Bernie, was also impacted by his family’s experience with the health care system after his mother was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago. Like Renneker, Mannik’s family wasn’t devastated by the financial costs, but it was an additional stressor on his middle-class family. It caused Mannik to consider the impact of health care costs on other families.

 

On Feb. 25, during one of the weekly Buffs for Bernie meetings, Mannik shared his reason for supporting Sanders, with the other 23 members present: “I support Bernie because ‘Medicare for All’ is really important to me. Because my mom had cancer a while ago and if we wouldn't have had enough money, she would have died,” Mannik said. “I know that lots of other families deal with that kind of stuff, and that's why I'm here.”

 

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Sharing the reason why you support Sanders was how each Buffs for Bernie meeting opened. Every Tuesday evening, members met in a classroom on campus, sat in a large rectangle and shared their name, pronouns and “Bernie story” to start the meeting off.

 

 

 

Buffs for Bernie members pose for a photo following their meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020 in Boulder, Colorado.

“This is all about making personal connections with people,” explained Abby Lowery, one of the campus core leaders of Buffs for Bernie, at the beginning of the Feb. 25 meeting, while also citing Sanders’ campaign slogan ‘Not me, us.’ “This is the only way we're gonna win.”

 

“Bernie needs to be my president because, like, straight up if not, I don't know what I'm gonna do,” she continued. For Lowery, who has chronic health issues and whose family lived through Hurricane Harvey in 2017, health care and climate change are her top priorities.

 

After each member shared their story, the other members snapped their fingers in acknowledgment before continuing around the rectangle. The members ranged from high school to graduate students, and most of the Bernie stories focused on climate change, health care and not allowing the wealthy to have all the power.

Interestingly enough, the boundary between Sanders and Warren supporters was often thin. Warren supporters often felt that she was more equipped to get things done due to her ability to compromise while sticking to her values, whereas Sanders was less efficient and carried the riskier label of a democratic socialist.

“I consider myself a socialist,” said Renneker. “But I do recognize that there is a lot of hostility with that term right now, so I just think if Bernie were the candidate, that would be the main attack point.”

 

“Really, when you look at it, Elizabeth’s and Bernie’s plans are extremely similar,” she continued. “But I think hers are more thorough. And she is a self-labeled capitalist, which I think will save her from that attack from the Republicans.”

Supporters of Sanders, however, felt that Sanders was more persistent and consistent in his wants and demands, and that he stood for greater societal change than Warren did. To them, Warren was less likely to achieve the amount of political, economic and environmental change they believe needed to happen.

While Warren and Sanders supporters shared similar frustrations with the health care system and climate change as well as hopes for the future, they differed in their beliefs on how to, and who could, most effectively implement the changes they longed for.

For many students, this was their first time being involved in a national campaign, though many student leaders had experience in a prior local campaign. For Renneker, she never imagined that she would become involved in politics.

 

“I definitely would say I was one of the people who was very just closed off to politics—like I do not care,” Renneker said. “I never ever saw myself going down this path in a million years.”

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Renneker’s first political introduction was supporting the Senate campaign for Beto O'Rourke in Texas in 2018. After O'Rourke dropped out of the 2020 presidential race, Renneker said that she found Warren's energy and detailed plans worthy of her endorsement. After attending a Warren weekend event in Denver during October of last year, she networked with other supporters and in December created Buffs for Warren.

 

Lesley Renneker poses in the Boulder field office for the Warren campaign on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020 in Boulder, Colorado.

By March, she was a canvas captain for the Boulder field office, where she spent her free time and weekends helping organize and train volunteers to do door-to-door canvassing. As a result, Buffs for Warren and the national campaign often blended together as one.  

 

For Mannik, of Buffs for Bernie, his first political experience was also in 2018 when he supported Jared Polis' run for governor of Colorado. During the summer of 2019, he participated in the “Students for Bernie Summer School” program, through which he connected to the other four campus core leaders and formed the Buffs for Bernie organization. With weekly meetings and frequent canvassing, tabling and phone campaigning, the organization was proactive on campus.  

 

Yang Gang, however, had a very different experience. Tim Goode, the founder of the organization and a junior majoring in political science and history, first became involved in politics in 2016 when he canvassed for Ro Khanna, who began serving as a congressman for California's 17th congressional district in 2017. When asked what was the motivation behind canvassing for Khanna, Goode answered “A girl.”

 

This time around, Goode’s primary motivator for supporting Andrew Yang was Yang’s universal basic income (UBI) proposal, in which all U.S. citizens over the age of 18 would receive a monthly stipend of $1,000. By fall 2019, Goode created Yang Gang with two of his friends. While they had wanted to host weekly meetings and tabling events leading up to Super Tuesday, their efforts came to an abrupt end after Yang dropped out of the race on Feb. 11. Despite Yang dropping out, Goode still hoped to host a campus event called Free Universal Basic Pancakes, a play on UBI, to help raise awareness about Yang’s ideas and the election—that is, until coronavirus struck and a stay-at-home order was issued for Colorado.

 

When I met with Goode on March 2 to get his thoughts on the election, he said he was now a supporter of Sanders and expressed frustration at Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who were both presidential candidates, for dropping out of the race and endorsing former Vice President Joe Biden. To Goode, it appeared as though Klobuchar and Buttegieg were consolidating around Biden to stop Sanders. He believed that Warren would only remain in the race if she was trying to pursue a brokered convention.

 

“When they designed the delegate and superdelegate system, it was specifically to prevent an outsider candidate like Bernie Sanders from taking over the party from the people who are currently in power,” said Goode, echoing the frustrations many students felt about the current political system that they were hoping to change. “I mean it's corrupt, because the rich people who have been in power and stayed in power just get to control the outcomes regardless of how the people want to vote.”

Unlike the Democratic Party, the Republican Party had no worries about a brokered convention; it was clear that President Donald Trump was the frontrunner. Thus, the focus for Students for Trump was preparing for the general election by relaying the issues that Trump voters cared about to the national campaign.

While relatively new on campus, Students for Trump has been around since 2016. It first began as a Twitter account created by Ryan A. Fournier, a student of Campbell University. With the help of fellow student John Lambert, the account became a national platform for students to share photos of themselves supporting Trump. Today, there are chapters of Students for Trump throughout college campuses within the U.S.

 

Ciro Riccardi is one of the founders of the Boulder chapter of Students for Trump, an organization that also works with the Turning Point USA CU Boulder chapter. While Riccardi was responsive to two of my emails about trying to organize an interview, after Feb. 12, I began to receive no responses. After sending multiple emails, I decided to sign up for the organization’s email list available online. The first email I received had the message line: “CU BOULDER CENSORS OUR EMAILS” and information about a meeting being held at 7 p.m.

 

 

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That night, I attended the meeting. I first saw Riccardi waiting outside the on-campus meeting room and talking with a girl I recognized from one of my Spanish classes. She seemed surprised to see me and referred to it as the secret life of a Republican. When I informed Riccardi who I was, he also seemed surprised but open to me sitting in. About seven students showed up that night, with the gender distribution being almost evenly split. During the meeting, Riccardi taught students to use the GOP Data Center and the campaign sidekick app to enter information about voters. He then announced that they would be canvassing in Boulder that upcoming Saturday, which involved knocking on the doors of Trump supporters to talk about the issues that mattered most to them and sending that information to the national campaign. After the meeting concluded, I asked Riccardi if I could come canvassing with them. He said that I unfortunately could not because the canvassing was for the national campaign, which has a “zero tolerance with media.” He said that he had “wanted to talk” with me. I didn’t understand the use of past tense at the time, but after that night, I did not receive any more emails from Students for Trump and my following emails to Riccardi were never answered.

 

The social media of Students for Trump, however, remained active. Their Instagram page, @sft_cu, featured various images, ranging from announcements about upcoming meetings to memes. Many of these posts critiqued other political candidates, such as Sanders and Biden.

                                                  

Email sent by Students for Trump on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020.
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Three separate posts made on the Instagram profile of Students for Trump at CU Boulder (@sft_cu) dating from (respectively) March 14, April 16, and April 17, 2020.

While the Students for Trump organization was more outwardly expressive of their opinions about other candidates, the other student organizations did so behind closed doors. Although the overall message of Buffs for Bernie and Buffs for Warren was to represent the campaign in a positive light and avoid heated debates, there were private moments in which some members shared a more negative message. For example, after one student at a Buffs for Bernie meeting found out that Students for Trump existed, they offhandedly said, “Wow, we should hate crime them.”

 

There are negative connotations associated with most political campaigns, and for Buffs for Bernie, it’s the label of “Bernie Bros,” a term that refers to aggressive online trolls who attack those opposed to Sanders. On Saturday, Feb 29, I went canvassing with Buffs for Bernie on campus along with Cyrus Gidfar, a CU Boulder alum who received his undergraduate degree in molecular biology, and Melissa Schirmer, a current sophomore also studying molecular biology. When Gidfar heard that I had attended a Students for Trump meeting, his curiosity peaked.

“Cause I have, like, all these stereotypical perceptions,” Gidfar began, “Was it like all males or like white dudes?”

“No,” I responded.

“There was women there?” he asked.

“There was—I think it was a 50/50 split,” I said.

“Really?” he asked. “That’s probably better than what, like, Buffs for Bernie is, at least from what I’ve seen, honestly.”

“Yeah, like today it was like 90 percent guys coming to canvas,” said Schirmer.

Out of the nearly 10 Buffs for Bernie members who had first met up that afternoon, Schirmer was the only female. After over an hour of canvassing, which consisted of asking strangers if they had voted in hopes of starting a conversation about Sanders, Gidfar mentioned how it makes him happy when young people support Sanders. Schirmer then responded that for her, she likes it when someone other than a white male supports Sanders, because “it really starts feeling like the Bernie Bros sometimes.”

In the five Buffs for Bernie meetings I attended, there was always a majority of males present. During the early afternoon of Super Tuesday, Ashlynn Manning, a volunteer for the Warren campaign and an elementary music teacher, was keeping watch over the Buffs for Warren table in the UMC until Renneker was available. As I waited with Manning for Renneker’s arrival, Manning shared with me that it looked as though there were mostly men, and the same type of men, at the Buffs for Bernie table whenever she passed by, leaving her to wonder where all the women were. When Renneker arrived, she shared the same sentiment, referring to it as the Bernie Bros.

For Mannik, the term Bernie Bros is inaccurate in explaining Buffs for Bernie. He suspected that part of the reason for their larger white male presence was due to the demographics of CU Boulder and possibly the media portrayal of Sanders supporters as Bernie Bros, causing people of other backgrounds to not feel as comfortable getting involved. In his view, all campaigns had people who are not friendly online, and so labeling all Sanders supporters based on the actions of those online trolls was a misrepresentation.

“For me specifically, like, I’m trans and like—it’s just, it’s kind of funny for me,” Mannik chuckled, sharing that he is transgender female-to-male. “You literally have no idea what anyone is going through.”

“Our problems are legitimate,” Mannik continued. “It makes it seem like these people don’t care what we have to say.”

Defining an entire movement is difficult. Just as every student has their own reason for becoming politically involved, they also have their own experience of being involved. While students like Schirmer felt isolated at times and students like Mannik felt misjudged and ignored, it was their passion for creating societal change that kept them moving forward.

The role of vulnerability in politics and its relationship to hope is remarkable. It became apparent to me during my first political rally on Sunday, Feb. 23 to see Warren live in Denver at the Fillmore Auditorium. I went with Renneker, Lucas Batista, a freshman studying environmental engineering and member of Buffs for Warren, and Sharyn Murray, a volunteer for the Boulder field office of the Warren campaign. As we stood in the packed auditorium, I was astounded by how a former teacher like Warren could make the world into her classroom.

 

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As people cheered for a better future and booed the status of politics today, it struck me how sharing one’s dreams and frustrations about politics was an expression of their values in life—and sharing that requires a level of vulnerability. I understood why politics could be so combative, because anger can be a defense mechanism for being vulnerable. But with the students I met, anger was a small piece of the political process. Hope, instead, was a primary motivator for immersing themselves into these campaigns. Grappling with hope is a fundamental part of the political process. Because just as when hope can be gained, it can equally be lost.

Lucas Batista cheers at the Warren rally in the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver, Colorado on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020.

On March 5, Warren dropped out of the presidential race. After Super Tuesday in Colorado, Sanders won 27 of the 67 available delegates, while Biden won 17, Warren won 13 and Michael Bloomberg won 10. On April 8, Sanders dropped. While disappointing for both Renneker and Mannik, they have no regrets.

“Something that’s been made clear to us is that our work is not over,” said Mannik. “The Bernie campaign was just the beginning of a bigger movement.” 

“I think if we play our cards right and organize our young people, which we’re on our way to doing right now, I think—I think we can show legislators that we do have a voice,” he continued, explaining that young people will be inheriting the decisions made today and cannot afford to not be involved.

Renneker also hopes to inspire more young people to be politically active and plans to create an initiative on campus that teaches students how to get involved. As she explained this to me, I was struck by how much had changed for Renneker.

The first time we met was on Feb. 7 at a meet and greet on campus with Julián Castro, a former housing secretary and 2020 presidential candidate, that she had organized in three days. Dressed in a “liberty green” Warren t-shirt that she bought online, Renneker, a student who at one point had no interest in being involved in politics, was now the person to introduce Castro to a room of over 50 people.

Renneker represents many students who are beginning to find their political voice—students who often find that the political process is not nearly as daunting as they had thought. When Castro came to campus on that snowy Friday afternoon, he brought a message not just about the value of Warren, but of something that all four student organizations shared: the value of students.

“You speak with, I believe—and I say this, you know, respectfully as somebody that went into politics when I was 26—with an idealism that we need in politics,” said Castro to the crowd of mostly college students. “People will often tell y’all as students, as young people, that you’re the future. That’s true. But you’re the present.

“You’re the present.”