Alumni launch ‘Vote Saver’ program to save spots in polling lines

by Soleil Gaylord | 10/29/20 2:00am

vote-saver
by Abigail Mihaly / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

Jono Klein ’19 and Bharath Katragadda ’19 have joined forces to start a voting initiative, Vote Saver, aimed at helping elderly voters and essential workers avoid long wait times at the polls. On Election Day, volunteers will save spots in line for senior citizens, veterans and essential workers who may have limited time. 

Eligible voters can sign up online ahead of time to use Vote Saver, or else sign up when they arrive at a polling place. When an essential worker or elderly voter arrives at their precinct, a Vote Saver volunteer will escort the voter into the polling center and swap them with the Vote Saver volunteer closest to the front of the line. The volunteer will then return to the back of the line. Katragadda said the program aims to reduce the wait times for eligible voters.

Klein said Vote Saver volunteers will be present at polls at selected cities in Arizona, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C. and Wisconsin. All local polling centers that Klein and Katragadda contacted thus far have granted Vote Saver permission to operate at their locations. Klein added that they hope to expand Vote Saver into more cities in California and New York, where they currently have the largest volunteer teams — 40 in Los Angeles, 15 in San Francisco and 15 in New York City so far.

Dartmouth students like Dylan Spector ’22 plan to help the efforts in Los Angeles County, where Klein and Katragadda are based. Spector said that he was motivated to volunteer for Vote Saver this year because of the importance of voting and the issue of long poll lines.

“It is a pretty momentous election,” Spector said. 

Klein said that he and Katragadda came up with the idea for Vote Saver after they noticed issues with long voting lines during early voting. Katragadda added that part of the inspiration to start Vote Saver came from ECON 77, “Social Entrepreneurship,” which the two took together at Dartmouth. 

He said the class inspired the pair to get involved with social ventures after graduation that are “not focused on profit but focused on helping people.” 

Katragadda said he worked with Alexander Danilowicz ’19 to research and design a website where people can sign up to volunteer and where voters can sign up to have someone wait in line for them.

Klein said former Dartmouth government professor David Cottrell advised him on the legality and the viability of their efforts.

“As long as you are just waiting in line for someone, there is no issue, but once you swap, the person who is the voter has to register and cast their own ballot,” Klein said. 

Klein said Vote Saver is working to engage Dartmouth students and the Hanover community in volunteer efforts. 

Because there are COVID-19 restrictions on campus, Klein said Vote Saver first had to receive approval from Provost Joseph Helble and other College contacts for Dartmouth students to participate in volunteer efforts. They are waiting on approval from lead poll workers in Hanover, which they expect to receive by Election Day.

Hanover town clerk Betsy McClain said that while an initiative like Vote Saver may be helpful in places that usually see long lines, she does not anticipate that it will be needed in Hanover. Historically, she said, wait times in Hanover do not exceed 15 minutes. She added that lines will likely be even shorter this year due to the high level of early registration and absentee voting.

“I totally appreciate that this would be something that if you are not able-bodied that would be really helpful, but our polling place doesn’t queue up like that,” McClain said. She added that there will be walkers and wheelchairs available at the polls.

Still, however, Klein and Katragadda still hope to bring the service to Hanover. They see Hanover as an ideal location for the service: Katragadda noted the “young, excited students” who could serve as volunteers, and both Klein and Katragadda mentioned the high population of senior citizens and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center essential workers living in the area.

According to Klein, pending approval, a team of Dartmouth students plan to volunteer for Vote Saver on Election Day. Nina Vogel ’21, who will head Vote Saver’s volunteer efforts in Hanover, said she is working with both polling locations and Dartmouth and Hanover High School students to coordinate efforts. 

Vogel said that with heightened health risks and the importance of voter turnout, she hopes her efforts will aid those who may be less able to wait in line. 

“It is really important to me to be able to facilitate higher voter turnout — as an able-bodied youth, I think I am in a really positive position to help people who might be more inconvenienced or even at-risk when trying to vote,” Vogel said. 

In an email to The Dartmouth, government professor Mia Costa wrote that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the costs of voting. However, Costa added that the benefits of potentially electing a desired candidate into office and the perceived civic duty, or personal gratification, of voting are heightened this year. 

“There have been narratives that this is literally a life or death election,” Costa said. “Early turnout is already up, so it does not seem like COVID is decreasing turnout so far.”

Costa emphasized the importance of high turnout in increasing representation. 

“Any initiative that may increase voting is important,” Costa wrote.

McClain said that both absentee voting and early registration numbers are higher this year. Just over 4,000 ballots have already been returned to the town clerk’s office, over half of the around 7,900 ballots — both in-person and absentee — cast in the 2016 general election, according to McClain. This year, anyone can vote absentee due to new state-wide rules. 

McClain added that Hanover typically registers over 1,000 voters on Election Day. This year, however, she said Dartmouth student leaders and the town of Hanover have heightened efforts to register voters in advance to avoid crowding at the polling station.

Klein said that he and Katragadda are working to expand Vote Saver into states like Texas, where absentee ballots are less accessible to the general population and where long lines have been an issue. 

“For us, it’s just a question of getting the word out and trying to get vote savers signed up where they’re needed most,” Klein said. 

Katragadda said that Vote Saver’s efforts in the future will be informed by how this election goes. He added that if Vote Saver is successful this Nov. 3, the “sky's the limit” as to the Vote Saver program’s role in future elections.

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