By De Elizabeth
Once Alyssa Canty learned the power that existed in going to the polls, she knew she had to spread the word. Through volunteer work, internships, and her own collegiate work, the organizer had seen firsthand how everyday citizens can hold elected officials accountable through the act of voting — and she was determined to help strengthen U.S. democracy by helping others find their voices, too.
As the Campus Outreach Coordinator for Common Cause North Carolina, an organization dedicated to fighting for voting access while also championing political reforms for fairer elections, 30-year-old Canty, a recipient of the 2019 MTV Leaders for Change grant, is currently empowering students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in North Carolina to stay informed and participate in local, state, and presidential elections. She is gearing up to take on a new role with Common Cause National, where she will work with schools all over the country. “I hope to take the program we have in North Carolina....and do similar work in other states in order to involve young people, and especially people of color, in politics,” she told MTV News. “My major professional goal is to create a larger base of engaged individuals.”
Canty’s political work began while she was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; she interned for Planned Parenthood and participated in one of the organization’s many advocacy days, where volunteers are able to join activists championing reproductive rights. “That gave me an insight into how politics worked,” she told MTV News. From there, she decided that she wanted to spend her life helping others fight for change, and wanted to specifically focus on HBCUs. “I have been able to connect students with the people who represent them, and give them an opportunity to speak with their elected officials,” she added.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 228,000 students are currently enrolled at HBCUs in the United States, and those students can make a huge impact with their votes. HBCUs have also become an important topic within the 2020 presidential race; several candidates, including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, have proposed significant funding for HBCUs in their education platforms, and the third Democratic debate was held at Texas Southern University earlier this fall.
“It's important that states realize the political power that those campuses have,” Canty emphasized, but added there is still work to be done. Political tactics such as gerrymandering and confusing voter ID laws can make it harder for college students to cast their vote, and often leave students frustrated by the voting process. During a recent phone interview, Canty spoke with MTV News about some of the obstacles young people face when going to the polls, and what her team is doing to help excite HBCU students about participating in elections and strengthening democracy as we know it.
MTV News: What are some things people might not know about voting issues that specifically impact HBCUs?
Alyssa Canty: One of our biggest issues is gerrymandering. North Carolina A&T State University is the biggest HBCU in the United States, and their campus is split in half [by a district line]. It's not just their campus, but [the line runs through] an actual resident hall. So, every time you come to campus in the fall, you might have to re-register to vote. On most campuses, you can use a general address so you won’t have to renew [your registration] every year. [But at A&T], during one election, you’re voting for one person and then in two years, your ballot could be completely different because you’re in a whole different district.
MTV News: How does a situation like that affect students’ ability to vote regularly and consistently?
Canty: Along with potentially being in two districts from one year to the next, [students] might also vote in two different locations. That creates confusion; where you vote one year in a local election might not be your polling site when you’re voting in a mid-term or a presidential election. Trying to remember your polling site really complicates things if you live in these dorms. There are definitely a lot of students who will miss their opportunity to vote just because of the confusion on where they should go.
MTV News: What strategies does your organization implement to help students who might be experiencing those kinds of obstacles?
Canty: We put a lot of energy and effort into early voting [where voters can visit any one-stop voting site] in their county. Students also have a chance to complete their registration [at one-stop voting sites]. We’ve been working with A&T to provide shuttles and busses. That way, it doesn’t matter what dorm you’re in, what precinct you’re in, whether you live on or off-campus, you can still participate. Last year, we were able to get shuttles running every 30 minutes or every hour, which really helped students — especially those who don’t have a car.
Additionally, we aim to mobilize students on election day. We give them information such as: ‘If you live in this in this hall, you need to go to this polling site.’ But it’s a lot of information to give people at one time, which is why we encourage early voting.
MTV News: In addition to educating students about polling locations, how do you help them navigate the new voter ID laws that are scheduled to be implemented in North Carolina next year?
Canty: We were able to help half [of A&T’s campus] meet the state’s requirements in order for their student IDs to be accepted at the polls. That was really exciting. We're also working with other campuses to make sure that they can meet the requirements. We have until this November to try to get the other campuses on board. It’s challenging because there are campuses that don't have funding to implement a new process for creating student IDs. There are some things they’d have to add, such as an expiration date. We’re trying to make sure schools are complying with the guidelines.
MTV News: What would you say to our nation’s leaders when it comes to the challenges these students face while fighting for voting access?
Canty: I’d want to highlight the fact that the ages that are most affected by voter ID laws are also the largest voting bloc. As we make it harder for the largest group to vote, that means less people are voting. In order to truly live in a country where the elected officials represent the majority, we have to give them access to voting and make sure that districts don’t weaken their vote by packing — or breaking up — populations of interest. Unless everybody has fair access, you don’t really represent the voice of the people.
MTV News: How might you encourage someone who is worried that their vote won’t make a difference?
Canty: I always focus on local issues. When people think about the 2016 election and the electoral college, they might conclude that their vote didn’t really matter, and that’s a bigger problem we have to work through. But when it comes to local elections, even statewide elections, [elected officials] will be making decisions that will affect every little thing you do. If your campus has extended library hours, that’s controlled by the state budget and the state governing board for the university system. When it comes to potholes or construction sites on campus, all of that is again controlled by the state. If we truly want our HBCUs to be better, to have the same state-of-the-art facilities that predominantly white schools have, then we have to make sure our voices are heard and that we are seen as a powerful unit.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Leaders for Change is an MTV grant program that invests in young people doing extraordinary work at the local level to advance voting access. From getting polling places on college campuses across Michigan to registering voters in Chicago jails to providing rides to the polls in Georgia, these young leaders are breaking down the barriers that make it hard to vote in their communities.