How Illinois athletes worked to boost voter registration on campus: 'There's definitely a heightened sense of urgency. Everyone is really out here fighting to be heard.'

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Illinois golfer Ali Morallos turned 18 shortly before moving from California to Champaign for college, not long before the 2016 election.

“I didn’t know where to go to register for mail-in and out-of-state (voting),” she said.

Like many young people and college students, Morallos did not vote.

This time around — now a senior — she’s registered. She’s also working to help ensure other Illinois athletes are too as a leader with the Big Ten’s Voter Registration Initiative.

“I could have really used this when I was a freshman,” Morallos said. “As athletes, we have an opportunity to have an incredible impact and platform. A lot of students are entering the age where they can vote, but some people just don’t know where to get started. They aren’t aware of what resources are available to them.”

The nonpartisan Voter Registration Initiative has been in the planning stages since February, part of Commissioner Kevin Warren’s Big Ten Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition. The conference-wide project includes student representatives from all 14 schools, with monthly educational programs that continue through the general election on Nov. 3.

Athletes teach other students and athletes the importance of civic engagement, voter registration and how to submit their ballots — both absentee mail-ins and in-person voting.

Illinois has two representatives from every team on the student-athlete advisory committee leading the way on the initiative. Football, women’s basketball and men’s basketball have registered every player on the roster.

96% of Illinois athletes filled out a summer survey on voter engagement.

“It’s been a complete team effort,” said Lisa Lawrence, Illinois assistant director of academic services and student-athlete development. “I’m proud of our student-athletes, how they’ve taken it and made it their own. We’re just such an unusual space in our country. This pandemic has given us time to slow down and observe. That has definitely played into it. I do feel there is a new sense of awareness that is definitely with young people.”

Football coach Lovie Smith has noticed enthusiasm on his team. He made a point to emphasize the importance of registering to vote — and seeing it through.

The team was especially active this summer, leading protests and being outspoken on racial injustice.

“I think college students in general are in tune with what’s happening in the world,” Smith said. “Instead of talking about what you’d like to see change, one way to do it — and that’s my message — is to go vote.

“I trust the information the guys are getting and seeing. If you’re in the United States right now and your ears and your eyes are open, I think you can get enough information for you to make a good decision on who you would vote for. I can’t wait to vote myself.”

Senior wide receiver Trevon Sidney, who recorded a public service announcement about voting for Illinois, plans to mail his ballot to his dad in California, who will deliver it in person for him.

“I didn’t pay attention to any of that before,” he said. “There’s just stuff happening in the world that needs to change and it’s been needing to change. The more recent instances have sparked me, and I’m just starting to pay attention a little more.

“As a country, yes, we have a leader, but it’s all of us together. Our voice matters. A lot people think voting isn’t going to do anything. A lot of people, like I was, weren’t into it. But I just tell them, all of it matters.”

The sports world has ramped up its calls for social justice and its outreach on voting.

Several NBA, NFL and MLB arenas will be used as polling places. Players and analysts pushed voting reminders during the NBA playoffs. The NCAA is granting athletes a day off to vote, with practices and competitions in all sports prohibited on Nov. 3.

Still, talking to classmates and teammates about politics can be awkward. Conversations about voting can appeal to those who aren’t so outspoken about their beliefs.

“It’s the easiest way to be involved in your democracy,” said Elizabeth Cablk, a senior goalkeeper on the women’s soccer team. “Voting doesn’t have to be a big announcement. It is a way to make your voice heard. The biggest political party are those who don’t vote. It doesn’t matter what you want to see in your government if you don’t vote.

“We have people (on the soccer team) from tons of different backgrounds. My teammate isn’t always going to agree with what I say, and that’s OK. The message I’m trying to send, it’s not, ‘Vote if you’re Republican,’ or ‘Vote if you’re a Democrat.’ It’s ‘Everyone vote.’ “

The initiative focuses on how to register, what state deadlines are where to find online information and how to submit ballots rather than suggesting candidates.

Some athletes find sharing their personal motivations for voting can be persuasive in registering peers.

“I grew up from a young age with a grandmother who instilled in me that women died for this right,” said Cablk, a Naperville North alumna. “I think it’s a huge responsibility and what being American means to me.”

Morallos, who interned this summer with U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., recalls her family background as well when she considers the importance of voting.

“My parents emigrated from the Philippines,” she said. “I still have a lot of family there. My grandmother lives there and runs a school. The Philippines’ government is very closely modeled after ours but it’s different. I thought it’s interesting … that a more corrupt government or how (citizens) are not aware of voting or corruption in voting can influence a nation in the long term.”

Athletes said they are having more frank conversations about politics and current events among their teams. Coaches are more apt to raise issues and let athletes lead discussions.

Eva Rubin, a senior women’s basketball player from Homewood-Flossmoor, also is helping teammates register to vote. She’s a programming chairperson for the campus group Enlightened Minorities Pursuing Opportunities Where Everyone Rises (EMPOWER).

Her teammates seemed eager to register to vote, realizing their platform as athletes and this important moment in American history.

“There’s definitely a heightened sense of urgency,” Rubin said. “I’ve seen my teammates step up and ask me questions. As athletes we have a lot of eyes on us. Everyone is really out here fighting to be heard.”

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