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Towson athletes trying to encourage peers to vote via new group TU Athletes Vote

As a teenager, LaKaitlin Wright can remember watching her parents, Angelia and Henry Wright, hang posters and call residents of their hometown of Alamo, Georgia, as representatives of the Democratic Party, trying to rally votes for former President Barack Obama.

“My parents ran the headquarters for our little place in Georgia during the Obama election,” she said Wednesday morning. “So I was always passionate about [politics], but I feel like with this election, it can be really me. It’s not about my parents. I can be the one that’s actually making a difference.”

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Now a senior center for the Towson women’s basketball team, Wright is trying to follow her parents’ examples and whip up excitement among fellow student-athletes about voting in the elections this fall as a member of a group called TU Athletes Vote.

The nonpartisan organization consisting of athletes, coaches, staff members and athletic department administrators played host to its first “Tiger Talks Town Hall” online Wednesday night. Wright joined a panel that included sophomore golfer Madeline Catalano, women’s basketball associate head coach Zach I. Kancher, deputy athletic director Tricia Brandenburg, assistant director for civic engagement Luis Sierra, and All In Campus Democracy Challenge program coordinator Dominique McMillan.

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A power-point presentation run by Kancher laid out a “voting scouting report” outlining strategy on how to vote, planning on whether to vote in-person or via absentee ballots, and personnel on what candidates are running on what platforms.

“If we were getting ready to play James Madison, we would know everything there is to know about them, who their personnel is, what they do on offense, and all of that kind of stuff,” Kancher said before the online meeting. “The idea is creating a presentation that mimics the language and format that athletes are used to looking at so that it would resonate more with them.”

During the presentation, Nate Mills, a freshman outfielder on the baseball team, asked whether he can vote in Maryland by absentee ballot or request an absentee ballot from his home state of California.

“The answer is yes to both,” McMillan replied. “You can do either-or, and it’s a matter of you figuring out where you feel comfortable voting and what issues you’d like to address in your community.”

Catalano spoke of how young people she knows compared voting to a chore and would cite their busy lives as an obstacle. But she noted that the coronavirus pandemic has removed that hurdle for many.

“I know that a lot of student-athletes have always kind of used schedules as an excuse,” she said. “If anything, it’s easier not to use schedules as an excuse because we’re not traveling as much, especially this fall. It’s just practices and staying close to campus.”

Kancher, who co-chairs TU Athletes Vote with Towson community partners coordinator Bria Bennett, said the inspiration for forming the group stemmed from nationwide protests of social injustice in the aftermath of the police-involved deaths of citizens like George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville. The organization wanted to channel those feelings productively.

“I think as coaches and as staff members, our goal is to figure out, ‘How do we create action behind the emotion?’” he said. “You can stand on a street corner and shout into a megaphone, but let’s back that up with you and your friends going to the polling booth.”

Four months before the creation of TU Athletes Vote, Kancher founded the Student-Athletes Voter Engagement (SAVE) Alliance, which uses Twitter and Instagram to provide college coaches and athletes with updated information about the voting process.

On Monday, he made presentations to USC’s women’s basketball program and the University of California Merced’s athletic department. On Thursday, he is scheduled to make a presentation with Florida State’s women’s basketball team and athletic department.

Kancher, who is also the voting engagement coordinator for Coaches 4 Change, said young people have not fully grasped how powerful they can be. He cited publications reporting that 1 of every 10 eligible voters this fall will be a member of Generation Z, a label referring to citizens between 18 and 24 years old, and that the combination of Generation Z and millennial voters will be greater than baby boomers for the first time in the country’s history.

“So what I’m trying to do with all of this outreach is, you’ve got to understand that you have the power as a voting cohort to create reforms and the changes that you want,” he said. “So why would you want to allow somebody who is a lot older than you to determine your future? I think that’s part of our responsibility as coaches, to mentor student-athletes to make them grow not just as athletes, but to make them grow as people and to help them look at the world in a more sophisticated fashion. And the great thing about our country is that even though we’ve got kids from all kinds of backgrounds from every place in the country and from every type of environment, everybody gets one vote, and everybody can use that vote however they see fit if they are informed.”

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Wright, the senior center on the women’s basketball team who transferred from Mercer before the 2019-20 season, admitted feeling frustrated when a former teammate said she had no intention of registering because she did not believe her vote mattered.

“Being young, there are people who think, ‘Well, it doesn’t really matter if I do it because the older generation will do it for us,’” she said. “But that’s not the case. We can’t let the people who are older than us make decisions about our future for us. We have a voice in that.”

Wright said TU Athletes Vote has met once every two weeks, and she has been working to convince eligible student-athletes to register to vote. She said the current registration rate is hovering around 80 percent, which is a solid start.

“We’re working on getting 100%,” she said. “We can do better, for sure.”

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