For senior political science major Maddie, involvement in the campus Voter Empowerment and Political Awareness Coalition (VEPAC) complemented what she was learning in class and opened her eyes to new possibilities.

“I didn’t know much about civic engagement before, but I know a lot now,” she said. “Being the VEPAC specialist really made a difference in my potential career paths as well. I want to take the project management skills I have learned and go into some kind of advocacy work.”

Encouraging civic engagement is the purpose of the non-partisan cross-campus collaboration. VEPAC formed to coordinate the previous efforts of the Center for Excellence in Learning through Service (CELTS), Student Life and the Student Government Association to increase voter turnout and involvement in the political process among students.

The coalition’s work in the fall semester focuses on facilitating the voting process for students. “We think strategically about removing barriers to voting,” explained Ashley Cochrane, CELTS director and member of the VEPAC leadership team. “At the heart of the work is a hope that students are developing a lifelong habit of being involved in the electoral process.”

The first step is ensuring students are registered to vote, whether at school or back home. The coalition presents several sign-up opportunities. Registering is an optional step in the housing selection process each year, and a link to Turbo Vote is available to those on campus through an electronic portal.

There is a big push on National Voter Registration Day, when volunteers host information tables around campus. Along with distributing resources on registering, VEPAC student volunteers help students access absentee ballots and inform them of deadlines. According to Maddie, students are overwhelmingly positive about this educational service the coalition provides.

On Kentucky’s early and regular voting days, VEPAC has a table at the College Ecovillage, conveniently located across from the local polling station. Volunteers check students’ registration status, offering reassurance before they go vote. They provide snacks and the chance to walk to the polls together. Election-day shuttles run all day so busy students who might only have a small window of time can fit voting into their day.

A new partnership in 2023 with the College Post Office provided free postage for students voting absentee in their home communities. Maddie said this project, like most VEPAC initiatives, arose from student feedback. During the previous election, she heard from more than 20 students that they couldn’t pay the postage to vote absentee. Several told her this year that the service allowed them to cast their ballot.

Beyond facilitating the process of voting, VEPAC programs help students be informed voters. During city and county election years, it traditionally sponsors one of the only local candidate forums, open to the community. Since 2023 was a Kentucky gubernatorial election, the coalition hosted a candidate debate watch party, complete with a bingo sheet of common terms like “taxes.”

Historically, Berea College has a higher-than-average rate of voter registration, but a lower-than-average voting rate. “College students are historically underrepresented in the voting pool,” Maddie said. “I tell people if they want to have some say in political decisions, they need to cast a ballot. Their voice matters, no matter how small of a minority vote they feel they are.”

The other major aspect of VEPAC’s work is civic engagement, and programs focus on learning to talk about critical issues and the legislative process. Presentations sponsored with the Political Science Students Association provide information about controversial topics, like gerrymandering, and give students opportunities to discuss them.

A critical piece of the legislative process is advocacy, and VEPAC encourages everyone to be involved in that work, whether they have the right to vote or not. The group connects students who want to get involved politically with conference opportunities and like-minded local organizations, like the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

During the 2023 session of the Kentucky State Assembly, Maddie and student Rilie ’25, collaborated to bring a group to the capitol in Frankfort. The event drew a mix of 15 students, from those in campus government to international students wanting to learn how the United States governmental process works.

Rilie was working with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, an advocacy group, and the Valentine’s Day lobbying focused on restoring voter rights for formerly incarcerated citizens. The field trip provided a holistic education. A pre-trip information session covered bills related to the topic and on-site legislative meetings helped students see how bills become law.

Other attendees shared their personal stories about permanently losing their right to vote, even after their release from prison. Students were able to speak with individual lawmakers about the issue. They could also choose to just watch what the process was like, with no pressure to advocate on the topic.

“We showed people engagement is more than voting,” Rilie said. “VEPAC is a really good entrance for people who want to get civically involved but don’t know how.”

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