senate elections committeeTestimony before the Senate Elections Committee

Thank you, Chair Carlson and members of the committee.

Hello, my name is Karina Villeda, and I am the Vice President of LeadMN and represent the 100,000 community and technical college students in Minnesota. I am here to speak in favor of SF1515 because it will help young people be engaged citizens.

First off, I want to thank Sen. Putnam for bringing forward this legislation and listening to the concerns of students. In 2022, students voted in record numbers. Yet as first-time voters we still face a number of issues that Sen. Putnam legislation will now address by embedding civic engagement into the fabric of our higher education institutions.

This work is critical because when someone turns 18, we don’t place pixy dust on them and they magically become engaged citizens. This is a learned activity that our educational institutions must take on.

This fall I became a first time voter at the age of 25. In high school I didn’t feel like my voice mattered or that those in government really cared about people like me. As the eldest child of Salvadorian immigrants, I could not go to my parents to help me understand how democracy worked. They were just trying to survive and make a living as small business owners to understand how politics impacts them.

Then after having my daughter, I took a leap of faith and went to community college. These last two years have transformed my life because I have learned about how the democratic process works and found my voice. This highlights the critical role that higher education institutions play in building not just workers, but engaged citizens.

At LeadMN we participate in the Ask Every Student framework which is about building a democracy in which all students are equipped to participate in. This framework leverages a human-centered social design process by having each higher education institution in Minnesota identify ways to integrate voter registration into existing processes to equitably reach every student. We will accomplish this by having a brief 1 to 1 conversation with every student to identify their reasons for voting and support them through the process of registering to vote and casting a ballot.

LeadMN will work with campuses and student leaders to recruit and train students to facilitate inclusive, nonpartisan conversations through which they can register students to vote and help them make a plan to cast a ballot. This project is especially important because we focus on engaging institutions that have a high percentage of low-propensity voters and students of color. Our work will make voting a habit in young people through a long-term approach of providing civic education, creating civic agency and tearing down institutional barriers that prevent students from voting.

This legislation is grounded in that Ask Every Student framework by ensuring that every institution helps students register to vote and has the resources they need to vote. The federal Higher Education Act of 1965 already requires colleges and universities to help students vote, SF 1515 builds on that legislation by the best practices that many institutions already deploy. And more importantly, it creates accountability to ensure compliance with the law and builds in mechanisms to help colleges and universities learn from each other.

We are asking that the vital work of preparing and supporting the youngest members of our democracy cannot be solely on young people’s shoulders; we need a new paradigm in which communities and institutions support youth electoral engagement so that it’s ongoing, developmental, and equitable. LeadMN is asking you to support this legislation so that Minnesota can continue to lead the nation in voter turnout and grow engaged citizens like me.