By Jeremy Hawkes, Sun Devil Athletics Media Relations
A day before the start of classes for Arizona State University’s fall semester, over 600 Sun Devil student-athletes and the entire Sun Devil Athletics staff hopped on a Zoom call to discuss the year ahead, the challenges everyone would face, and to lay out the goals and expectations for the upcoming seasons.
But the discussion was not simply limited to results on the field. In fact, very little of the hour-plus talk had anything to do with athletic competition at all.
Famed American sociologist and civil rights activist Harry Edwards served as a guest speaker for the event, encouraging those on the call to use their platform as athletes to engage themselves in their communities and abroad and use their voices to encourage change, reform and to generally create a better world around them.
For Sun Devil Softball junior Olivia Miller, Edwards’ message echoed one that she shared with her peers on Zoom only moments earlier: a call to action to have each and every eligible student-athlete registered to vote in time for Election Day 2020.
Working with the Sun Devil Athletics administration, the Andrew Goodman Foundation and Arizona State University itself, Miller has taken it upon herself to have 100 percent of Sun Devil Athletics registered to vote – a deadline of Oct. 5 for Arizona voters, which the majority of student-athletes are eligible to participate in due to establishing residence in the state through their enrollment and time spent living here.
With the nation’s political and social unrest taking center stage as November 3 approaches, the state of Arizona finds itself squarely entrenched as one of the pivotal battleground states that could swing the election one way or the other.
But beyond the presidential election, Miller – an Arizona native and Corona Del Sol high school alum out of Tempe – aims to encourage her fellow student-athletes that change happens at all levels. Addressing the hot-topic issues of police brutality, systemic racism, LGBTQ+ rights, public policy, educational reform and more starts with local elected officials and works its way to the top.
For Miller, it is pivotal to simply inform her peers to look beyond the grass or the court and embrace the fact they have a unique opportunity to create change and a better world and the ability to leverage their platform to start the dialogue with a larger demographic and to initiate that change.
“I want athletes to know that we have a voice outside of sport,” Miller said. “A lot of times as an athlete, you grow up playing a sport your entire life and you get to this age and you don’t know anything outside of that. So, you have to get people to realize that they have a voice and can participate and from there, how do you use your platform as a student-athlete to share the message in the bigger picture beyond athletics.”
Miller’s devotion to the initiative began simply enough in February. The softball representative for the Sun Devil Student-Athlete Advisory Board Miller knew that Arizona’s primary voter registration deadline was set for March 10.
Through conversations with her teammates about the primary elections, she became aware that very few were registered to vote and assumed that that might be a common trend amongst the entire athletic department. Despite having a feeling the tally was low, she was surprised by just how low it was, coming in at “maybe five percent of all the student-athletes” being registered to vote.
Sun Devil Athletics wasn’t alone there, however. In fact, college-aged voters have historically had low turnouts at the polls for many years, though the numbers have significantly improved in recent years.
During the 2014 midterm elections, only 19 percent of college students who were eligible cast ballots, according to a study by Tufts University. With social, economic and political issues taking center stage after the 2016 presidential election, that number rocketed to 40 percent during the 2018 midterm elections.
Still, less than 50 percent of the nearly 20 million eligible student voters submitted a ballot in the 2016 election – nearly 10 percentage points behind the overall eligible voting-age population (55.7 percent) despite young adults (18-29) representing 21 percent of the eligible voters nationally. It was this lacking trend that Miller hoped to emphasize amongst her fellow ASU teammates.
So, she took it upon herself to reach out to staff members in Sun Devil Athletics to see what she could do to help educate her peers and try to change those numbers for the better.
The first step Miller took was to reach out to Deana Garner-Smith – Sun Devil Athletics’ Senior Woman Administrator – with a simple question: “What can I do?”
It started with a presentation to the SAAC board to shed light on the lack of registered voters amongst the student-athletes. As social and political strife continued to grow in America throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Miller sought different ways to make a difference and educate her fellow-student athletes – culminating in her final goal to register all student-athletes to vote.
Garner-Smith was instantly struck by Miller’s initiative, noting the topic had come up on and off between student-athletes and administrators through the years but with nothing static to show for it until Miller decided to make her stand.
“We would talk about it periodically each year with SAAC just to make sure students knew that if they wanted to vote, they didn’t have to go far,” Garner-Smith recalls. “We gave them the information but the students were still just kind of unmotivated. But now that they have this peer leading the way, it seems they are becoming more excited about it and realize that it is their responsibility.”
Miller’s passion reminded Garner-Smith of her own experiences raising awareness for voting initiatives while she was in college – knowledge she hoped to impart upon Miller to help her realize just how worthy a goal she was seeking to fulfil.
Garner-Smith attended Dillard University in New Orleans, a historically black college, where she was a freshman in 1984. That year, Jesse Jackson emerged as a surprising presidential candidate for the Democrats, becoming just the second African-American to launch a nationwide presidential campaign and the first at the time to be a serious contender.
His campaign revolved around his grassroots efforts and the National Rainbow Coalition – which would later merge into Operation PUSH. During the campaign, Jackson would speak about a “Rainbow Coalition”, an idea created by Fred Hampton, regarding the disadvantaged and welcomed voters from a broad spectrum of races and creeds and aimed to address political empowerment and public policy issues.
Jackson made an appearance at the Dillard campus, with Garner-Smith attending the rally. Immediately afterward, she found herself and fellow classmates heading to the lower income wards in New Orleans and going door to door in the tenement housing registering people to vote.
She would go on to work the polls and register voters every summer when she would go home to Indianapolis as well and knows just how important – and difficult – Miller’s initiative would prove to be.
“I told her she needed to go for it,” Garner-Smith said. “Now is such a critical time. She seems to have lit a fire under many of the student-athletes.”
Miller has had the support of Sun Devil Athletics and Arizona State University from the jump and credits that support for much of her success thus far.
“The athletic department has been amazing in every single way imaginable,” Miller said. “It’s been nice because what would be the point if the administration wasn’t behind me to relay just how important this is?”
Miller has worked with numerous departments within the athletic department, communication with compliance officers to see what she can and can’t do to promote the initiative and with the marketing department to produce graphics and informational packets to provide to student-athletes. She recently spoke with all of the Sun Devil head coaches on a Zoom call to discuss her efforts and to implore them to speak with their teams and engage them in the efforts to register to vote in addition to her call to action on the All-Student-Athlete call in August.
Miller’s efforts within the department led to her applying for an internship with the Andrew Goodman Foundation, which actually reached out to her to ask her to be a part of the fellowship and to be the liaison with Sun Devil Athletics.
The Foundation is named after Andrew Goodman, an American social worker and activist murdered by the Ku Klux Klan during the Freedom Summer of 1964 – which aimed to register as African-American voters as possible in Mississippi. The Andrew Goodman Foundation supports youth leadership development, voting accessibility, and social justice initiatives on campuses across the country with mini-grants to select institutions of higher learning and other financial assistance to students. Its vision is that young people will become active, engaged citizens who ensure a just democracy and sustainable future.
In her role as an AGF fellow, Miller works with fellow college students across the nation to develop the infrastructure and gain the resources to implement an improved voter registration process campus-wide.
Through the foundation, Miller developed the contacts to apply for a $25,000 grant for voter registration materials that ideally would have been available at Sun Devil Athletics home events this season, prior to the Pac-12’s announcement to delay Fall sports to the new year.
The AGF has provided scripts and talking points to Miller to discuss the importance of voting not just within the athletic department but campus wide and with local and national media members and the utilize her voice as a student-athlete to make a difference.
“If it wasn’t for the administration and their support, I don’t know if I would ever have gotten the opportunity to be a part of this fellowship.”
Miller took an interest in politics during her late teens and credits the political landscape of Arizona – a state that is largely considered to be one of the most important swing states this election season – for molding her interest and her desire to do more.
“For me personally, around when I was 16, I thought it was like the coolest thing ever that you got to vote when you turned 18,” Miller said. “Just to be a functioning adult in our society was something I thought was awesome.”
Following the political climate in her youth was what helped Miller – who grew up in Tempe and attended Corona Del Sol High School – come to realize that it’s not the president that has an immediate impact on what’s going within the Phoenix metro area.
“A lot of my passion comes from the localized level and I want to express to people that real change comes at home where there’s more control factors in our daily lives,” she said. “I’m from Phoenix so I wanted to have the conversation of what we could do to change Phoenix.”
But even with her focus on local elections, her desire to pursue change went into overdrive following the May 25 shooting and death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
With the social and political unrest that followed nationally, she noted that it was not more important than ever to take a stand and make an effort to put people into office that would foster a positive change for the nation, regardless of political affiliation.
“I noticed after George Floyd’s death that I saw a big spike in people paying attention to the world around them and who was in office and who can affect these things directly,” she said.
Garner-Smith has also noted a shift in the attitudes toward voting given the events going on in the country recently.
“I’m hoping that with some of the social justice initiatives that the student-athletes have taken part in over the last couple months will help engage everyone who is able to vote to exercise their constitutional right to do so,” Garner-Smith said. “Especially this year in particular when it is also the 100th anniversary of the passing of the 19th Amendment.”
But the rise in engagement has also seen several notable instances of apathy in regards to the current state and divide in politics.
Miller notes that much of the time the conversation immediately goes toward opinions of not caring about either presidential candidates and thus a desire to not vote as a result. Miller states half the challenge is convincing her peers that that particular line of thinking is exactly the problem and that it isn’t so simple as one presidential candidate versus another when it comes to voting.
Miller hopes to educate her peers that there is much that can be done at the local level when it comes to voting and much of the change that people can make for the country starts with the political positions in her fellow student-athlete’s own backyards – elections that she says many people don’t know exist or what they are voting for.
Another challenge Miller faces with registering voters has been the sheer diversity of Sun Devil student-athletes that come from outside the state of Arizona.
Arizona is one of 17 “strict voter ID” states, meaning the state will reject a ballot without an accepted form of identification. Student-athletes with an established residence in Arizona can submit their registration to vote as an Arizona resident but those who don’t must request absentee ballots from their home state, which might require an entirely different form of identification. Each student-athlete might have a different circumstance when it comes to where and how to register and Miller has had to do her part to work around those instances.
She has created educational PowerPoint presentations and documentation to help Sun Devil student-athletes register in the location that makes the most sense for them but she does note that it can be a hurdle that slows up the process.
Beyond the matter of simply registering student-athletes to vote, there is the other matter of providing voter education to those who will vote based on their home state’s ballot.
While she admits she could easily go up and down the Arizona ballot and educate someone on each and every candidate for every single nomination, she notes that some of the impetus still must fall on her peers to do their own research and educate themselves.
“We have students from over 35 states and different cities within those states and I don’t have the time or resources to sit down with every single person and go over their local ballot,” she said. “So, that’s been hard on me because I want to be able to help them understand what’s going on in their own hometowns but that’s just not feasible.”
When all is said and done, Miller simply hopes that her peers take the initial initiative to register to vote and hit the ground running from there.
“I try to help everyone to become more politically aware and involved and that’s the first step to making change,” Miller said. “Nothing is going to happen if our demographic doesn’t start paying attention. Years down the line, I hope the infrastructure I’m building to educate and register voters convinces people that it’s not a matter of who you vote for, but you should know that you have that power and should take advantage of it.”
Miller credits her status as a student-athlete to leverage the Sun Devil Athletics platform to get people on board, noting examples such as football coach Herm Edwards working to register the entire football roster prior to the upcoming deadline.
And while there has been steady improvement in the early going of the final push of the voter registration initiative, Miller knows that there is still work to be done. It is her hope that her fellow students and the platform they have to reach out to the broader spectrum will make everyone more aware of what it is they can do.
“At the end of the day, I just want people to pay attention to the world around them,” Miller concludes adamantly. “The more you pay attention, the more you will know what’s affecting what going on in the world and the easier it will be to make a difference.”