Jonathan Portanova ’23 (CLAS) voted for the first time in 2014, in the primary race between Connecticut’s Tom Foley and John McKinney for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Seven years later, he put his own name on the ballot as a candidate for Board of Representatives in Stamford’s 13th District.
But as he watched results come in on election night 2021, Portanova’s chance for elected office slipped away by 112 votes.
“Every vote counts and that’s why it’s important to come out and vote,” he says. “You may not have something in common with the candidates running. You may agree with them only 80% of the time and not 100%, but 80% is still something.
“You’re given the right to vote,” he adds, “and a lot of people in our history have had to fight for that right.”
As Election Day approached, students throughout the University and in a host of disciplines spent the better part of the semester studying and readying for the midterm elections, which, in Connecticut, also feature gubernatorial, constitutional officer, and some local races.
“There are a lot of young people who chose not to follow politics and I think they miss their chance to share their opinions with their fellow students and make themselves heard in any electoral choices,” Nicholas Marin ’23 (SFA) says. “It’s important that every student understands it’s less about politics and more about participation.”
Marin and Portanova don’t share the same major – digital media and design and political science, respectively – but together they and others on the UConn Stamford campus organized and promoted Voter Education Day to rally students on the issues, introduce them to community voices, and even meet some candidates.
Portanova and the other students in assistant professor-in-residence Beth Ginsberg’s political science Electoral Behavior class did the work of putting together Voter Education Day, which was held Oct. 25, while Marin and three others in assistant professor Steve Harper’s DMD Agency class created promotional materials.
Across the state in Storrs, students in professor Paul Herrnson’s political science class, The Art, Science, and Business of Political Campaigns, have studied the minutest of details in competitive congressional House races around the country – down to where the candidates grew up.
“For all of us, the best way we can be involved in our democracy is to vote,” Elly Stephen ’25 (CLAS) says. “Voting is the best way we have, especially as young people who don’t necessarily have a place in the workforce yet, to be involved in government and have our say in it.”
Studying Country’s Most Competitive Races
Stephen’s classmate, Elena Bielesz ’26 (ACES), who at 18 years old will be voting in her first election this year, is studying Ohio’s 13th House race between Democrat Emilia Sykes and Republican Madison Gesiotto Gilbert.
Bielesz says that when Herrnson gave the class a list of competitive races from which to choose, she chose three at random and settled on this one because it was most interesting to her: Both candidates are women, neither is an incumbent, Gilbert has former President Donald Trump’s endorsement, Sykes has more political experience, and the district itself has just gone through a messy redistricting process.
“The most difficult thing for me is having to contact the candidates,” Bielesz says. “We have to contact their campaign team and contact political professors in universities near the district. That’s a bit stressful to reach out to these people and interview them. They’re professional people who are intimidating.”
Herrnson says he pushes the students to send their final paper that recaps the race, predicts a victor, and analyzes the ultimate outcome to everyone they spoke to and everyone who might be pundits about the race, including journalists who covered it.
“On one occasion a student got a return call from a campaign, and she was terrified – a member of Congress she wrote about wanted to talk with her,” he says. “She thought she did something wrong and she went in and met with the member. They talked a little bit about the paper, asked her some questions about it, and a few other questions. Then they said, ‘We know you’re a senior, we know you have one semester left, can we hire you now and you can go to school part time or take independent studies.’”
That student, with the agreement of her parents, ended up taking the job that came about because of a single class.
“I’ve had students do amazing things in politics,” Herrnson says.
Stephen says her middle and high schools were art-focused, and she always thought she might do something artistically, until she took a mock trial class and learned about criminal law. Studying politics and how it intersects with that interest is a nice marriage.
Today, she’s researching Pennsylvania’s 8th House race between Democratic incumbent Matt Cartwright and Republican challenger Jim Bognet – featuring a reshaped district in 2018 after a legal challenge and again in 2020 after the census, a Trump-endorsed candidate, and a repeat match-up between the two candidates.
“So many Republicans who are running this year are election deniers,” Stephen says. “I think that will be an overarching theme and deciding whether we want to be a democracy or not. We may have gotten through 2020 and, obviously, Joe Biden is our president, but I don’t think that by any means is over with. I do expect, even in local elections, that to be a big influencer.”
Stressing the Importance of Civic Engagement
“I always wondered when I was a kid why my parents are so into politics, and then I realized it was DACA, that was the reason,” Emily Cervantes ’24 (CLAS) says. “It’s important to be aware of what’s going on in your community because it impacts you. Gas prices going up, inflation, all of it impacts even an 18-year-old who’s paying for gas, paying for college, paying for health care.”
Cervantes and Portanova, who worked with Ginsberg’s entire class on Voter Education Day, sought representatives from the camps of gubernatorial candidates Democrat Ned Lamont and Republican Bob Stefanowski.
“Voter Education Day is stressing the importance of civic engagement and also letting people know why it’s so important to vote regardless of what political party you believe in,” Cervantes says. “Just getting more involved in your environment, because in your daily life laws impact you, that’s why it’s important to vote.”
Ginsberg started the event in 2016 as a serving learning project, continuing it in 2018 and again in 2020, to expose students to such organizations as the NAACP, Stamford Business Council, and Moms Demand Action, in addition to politics. Groups set up tables with literature in the campus’s concourse and students wend their way through during the day.
“For the longest time, the 18- to 25-year-old demographic did not vote and had some of the lowest turnout numbers,” Ginsberg says. “Fortunately, the last six to 10 years, the trend has been swinging upward and more of them have been voting. I think part of that has to do with school shootings, unfortunately.”
She continues, “Today’s freshmen and sophomores have grown up in an environment of school violence, the March for Our Lives after Parkland, Greta Thunberg and advocacy on climate change. Our students are realizing that decisions are being made by those who show up, so they’re starting to show up. I think that post-Dobbs, women are incredibly concerned, especially college-age women, about their sexual health.”
Agustina Aranda ’23 (SFA) agrees that issues are the driver – not just as a reason to vote but a way to attract others to vote.
In Harper’s Agency class, Aranda, Marin, Misael De La Rosa ’23 (SFA), and Sabrina Alcin ’23 (SFA) created social media posts and flyers advertising Voter Education Day and the importance of registering to vote.
To that end, Aranda says that at first the group kept emphasizing the word “vote.”
“But people care more about their own problems before they care about your solutions,” she says. “Our professor suggested putting problems and issues and things people care about before using the word ‘vote’ because they care about their own problems. That makes sense.”
Another hurdle De La Rosa says was catering to the masses.
“It’s really hard to try to promote voting if you don’t have the right wording or the right approach for many different kinds of students, a diverse community,” he says. “We have to cater to everybody when we’re making something.”
But connecting students to the act of voting can be hard, Alcin adds.
“Especially on social media, people care about issues, but they really don’t partake in the change,” she says. “I feel like that’s an obstacle, actually getting students to go out and vote.”
UConn Stamford will host an election night party on campus in the multipurpose room and a post-election panel discussion with Ginsberg, assistant professor Robert Lupton, and Susan Herbst, professor and president emeritus.