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Hack for Democracy event seeks to increase civic engagement among STEM majors at ASU

ASU students with Secretary of State Katie Hobbs

Cyrus Commissariat and fellow Andrew Goodman Foundation ambassador Ayesha Ahsan are pictured last fall with Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs at ASU's Tempe campus.

October 07, 2020

Cyrus Commissariat and Alexis Sammon have been active in educating and motivating fellow Arizona State University students to register to vote. This fall, they’re taking their focus on civic engagement to the next level by hosting Hack for Democracy at ASU, a virtual hackathon challenging students to bring together the spheres of civic engagement and software development.

As ambassadors for the Andrew Goodman Foundation, Commissariat and Sammon realized there was a trend in past data showing that science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors were less likely to vote at ASU.

“The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University releases a report on voting and what voting looks like at universities across the country. In the National Study of Learning and Voter Engagement report, our 2018 data was based on major and it's really glaring,” said Commissariat, a senior in The College studying political science, history and French. “So we were confronting this question of, 'How do we make voting exciting and how do we engage students?'”

Enter the virtual hackathon. Individual students or groups are challenged to develop a technical solution for an issue related to civic engagement that could include but isn't limited to fair and secure elections, misinformation and bias, civic education or voter participation. Pitch submissions are due Oct. 17 and finalists will be invited to give a live, five-minute pitch to a panel of judges via Zoom on Oct. 31. The top three winners will receive a monetary prize.

“We're hoping that this event will engage students and show that there is a future for STEM students in democracy work, in civic tech and that it will create the next generation of entrepreneurs who will do the work that voter engagement people like us really need,” he said.

Commissariat shared more about his experience with civic engagement at ASU.

Question: What motivates you to partake in activities like increasing student voter registration and civic engagement?

Answer: The reason I started any of this work is because of my passion for education and education equity, which is something that we in this state have a problem with. I think that when voters are informed and when they care about education and the environment around them, then they make good decisions — an informed voter is a really great voter. So, I realized that there's this disconnect between people hating the government, but they don't want to vote. How will the government ever change? Voting is one tool with which we can make that change happen. And there are other tools and activists that do really great work but I think this is one really concrete and easy way that every citizen can get involved in government.

Q: Can you share more about ASU’s connection with the Andrew Goodman Foundation?

A: The Andrew Goodman Foundation started after the murder of Andrew Goodman. Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner were three young men who went to register African Americans in the South and were killed by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi. His mother started this foundation in his memory to encourage college students to register other students to vote as her son did back in the ’60s. The Pastor Center for Politics and Public Service for politics — which is located in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions — hosts the Andrew Goodman ambassadorship for student ambassadors to try and engage college students to register other students to vote. Right now, there's eight of us; the program has grown quite a bit.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like people to know?

A: There are a lot of other organizations who are doing really good work around registering people to vote. My team of eight is certainly not enough to register all 100,000 ASU students. There's definitely others who are doing really good things: Mi Familia Vota, the Black African Coalition, the civic engagement coalition at ASU. And then nationally, the Pastor Center is a part of the Students Learn Students Vote Coalition; they're the foundation that provided the hackathon grant funding that'll make the prize possible and also helped us expand our team. It's really helpful to see that we're not doing this work in a vacuum and that this is really a priority for higher education across the country.

Register for Hack for Democracy.

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