Episode 6: When We All Vote


Featured Guest


Kyle Lierman

CEO, When We All Vote








Nicole Hurd: Welcome everybody to the Knowledge or College podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Nicole Hurd. I am so excited to have a friend with us today who is a huge influence in my life, just because of the way he shows up.

So, my friend Kyle Lierman is here, he is running the, When We all Vote work, but he’s had multiple hats and has been with me in multiple places because he was a huge part of the Obama administration. But like I said, he’s somebody who reminds me why it’s important to show up. I also say you should follow Kyle on Twitter because he has the cutest family in the world.

So therefore, but, on a personal note, we’re in an election season, I’m wearing my Vote shirt. Part of why we have you here, Kyle, is to talk about voting and the work you’re doing, but I just want to nerd out for a second, because when I was getting ready for this and I was thinking about, when did I first get excited about politics?

This was before you were born Kyle. It was 1980, and I was in fifth grade, Ms. Whitman’s class, and we had to be a candidate, and I did not choose what candidate I was assigned. So, we’re going to be nonpartisan today. I was chosen to be Ronald Reagan. I had to debate one of my friends who was Jimmy Carter.

There were 30 kids in the class, and I got 29 votes. And that was the beginning of knowing that I had to use my voice.

Yes. So, being the Ronald Reagan of fifth grade, was when I learned, wow, I have this thing called a voice and someday I’ll have this thing called a vote and wow are they important. And so, with that story, I can’t wait to hand this over to you, Kyle, because you’re the one making sure we all use those voices.

So, Kyle, welcome to the podcast.

Kyle: Thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be here.

Nicole Hurd: Talk to us all about When We all Vote and what you’re up to right now.

Kyle: Nicole, as you mentioned, you and I have done a lot of work together over the years and I’ve had the real honor and privilege of working for both Obamas over the years. I, post white house, got a call from my former white house boss, Valerie Jarrett. And she said, “Hey Kyle, Mrs. Obama wants to get engaged on the voting front. She was really dismayed that 100 million people sat out in 2016 and didn’t make their voices heard. Can you come and sit down with her and think about what she could do?”

Obviously, I said— well, one, I’ll say yes to whatever Valerie Jarrett asked me to do, but if she’s calling to ask me to meet with Michelle Obama, I’m certainly going to do it. And you know, Mrs. Obama, is just this truly unbelievable figure in terms of, she really is not a political figure. She’s a cultural figure. She’s a fearless leader. People from all walks of life, all different backgrounds, all different ages listen to her, and follow her, and engage with her. Over the course of the last 12 years, since, the White House, she has launched a series of initiatives, that really all center around one main thing, which is using culture change to drive change. You and I had worked together on the Retire Initiative, which is about encouraging first-generation, low-income students to get some form of college, and that is about changing the culture around college in a lot of ways and inspiring a new generation to take up the opportunity of higher education.

When I sat down with her, the first thing she said was this needs to be long-term because we can’t change things overnight—this has to be about voting in every election, not just one election. The second thing she said was, this has to be nonpartisan because, that really goes into the third reason, which is she wanted to sort of stick with that, “How do we change culture mentality?” And when we say our mission is to change the culture of voting in this country—which is what we say— it is about making voting bigger than any one election, one candidate, one party, or one issue. It’s about people fundamentally owning their ability to make their voice heard and using that power.

If we are able to impart that on folks, if we’re able to empower folks through organizing, and communications with the right message and information, and inspire them to talk to their friends and their neighbors and their classmates, not only can we increase turnout in this election, but we can increase turnout for generations to come.

We work to change the culture around voting. We work to increase participation in every election. We also focus on closing the age and race voting gap, which is really pronounced and is one of the reasons I’m so glad to be talking to you. We also think about, when we say change in the culture—but again, it’s not just about individuals using their own power. It’s every organization, every company, every elected official, every individual who’s engaged has a responsibility, not only to get themselves educated and out and registered and out to the polls, but to bring people with them. And educators, counselors, principals, college administrators, college presidents, everybody has a role to play in strengthening our democracy beyond just voting themselves.

One of the reasons I’m so glad it’s nonpartisan is because it allows us to reach into traditional systems. We can work with K-12 institutions. We can work with high schools. We can work with colleges directly, and we want every single entity in this country—every company, every organization, every school, and every individual—to take it upon themselves to be a warrior for our democracy and to do what they can with their power to help the people in their life—the people they communicate with, the people that they mentor, the people that they connect with—registered, and out to the polls.

Nicole Hurd: So, Kyle, what you’re doing is so incredibly important and I think as College Advising Corps, we’re trying to double down exactly what you’re talking about, which is, how do we show up and how do we show up together, right? And in a nonpartisan way, how do we actively participate together, right? Part of why I wanted you on today was to talk about, you know, we gave election day off at the national office. We’re hoping that all our advisers talk to their program directors and take the day off, so they can be involved that day.

Two things I want to talk about, one is voting early, right? And just the importance of it. And the other thing I want to talk about, is this idea of a Voting Squad because I think it is brilliant. So, can you talk to us a little bit about how important it to vote early—if you’re in a state able to vote early—and then what this idea is of a Voting Squad?

Kyle: Yeah, absolutely.

So, first things first, and your counselors are like the perfect people on this because you guys navigate people through the craziness and mess of the college application process. And I wish that I could say voting was simple, and a lot of realities—especially in a year when there’s a pandemic—it’s not super simple.

And it’s certainly not simple when people are doing it for the first time. We did a lot of research that showed that one of the main reasons people don’t vote is because they aren’t confident enough in their knowledge and education about the voting process. So, I’m hoping every counselor in America uses that skill set that they have to help people through the voting process.

The main thing we want folks to do is to vote early. So, we obviously, we’re passed a lot of the voter registration deadlines, but in your great state of North Carolina and places like Michigan and in Wisconsin, and in a number of other States, when you’re voting early, you can actually register and vote early.

So, in almost every state, there’s some form of early voting. So, encourage folks to follow, When We All Vote on social media, check out our website, you can make your plan to vote there. It shows you all the different options in your specific state, and we have lists of all the different states on social media, graphics and what not online.

But voting early, I always say, you never know what’s going to come up on election day. All of our lives are crazy. It’s 2020, so some crazy thing is going to happen this year. So, give yourself an opportunity, give yourself a little bit of extra time, give yourself a backup plan.

Your first plan should be, make a plan to vote early, and then your backup plan can be vote on election day if for some reason something happens. So, voting early is critical. Dr. Fauci was on 60 minutes over the weekend and I was so glad that he said this, he said he’s going to vote in person because he likes doing that.

He also said, that as long as you’re safe, if you wear a mask, bring some hand sanitizer along with you, you can vote in person early safely or on election day safely. So, as long as everyone’s taking the proper precautions and being smart about wearing a mask and whatnot, it’s totally safe to vote early.

So, we’re encouraging as many Americans as possible to do that. And then thank you for teeing me up with the Voting Squad. All the research that we’ve done, all the evidence that we’ve seen and all the programming that we’ve run, even at an organization where we have as powerful of a voice as Michelle Obama and Tom Hanks and all the others, Chris Paul—great North Carolinian, Chris Paul— the most important person—in terms of getting someone registered now to vote—the most important thing is that someone hears from a friend, or a family member, or classmates, or someone who they know and trust. It’s also important to make voting fun.

It can be an activity. My wife and I are literally going to March to the polls from our house, and we’re going to bring as many people along with us as possible to go to our early voting center. So, Voting Squad is basically a call to action to people to create their own Voting Squads. Get at least three friends, family members or classmates, and start a text chain, or find a place to meet up. Get to the polls, everyone’s got their PPE on them. You can be socially distancing and have a little fun with it, bring your squad to the polls. So, it’s really just about getting people to reach out to the people in their own lives, which is what we’ve found to be the most powerful thing.

Nicole Hurd: I just want to invite all the advisers to hear a couple of things you just said. One is the power of near peer, right? That’s why the College Advising Corps exists, is the power of saying to each other, “I believe in you.” And then having it come from people who care about you, look like you, talk like you, from your community, have an influence with you.

Don’t want to let that go for a second just the power of the near peer piece of this. I also want to invite College advising Corps friends, family, whoever’s listening to this podcast. If you want to hit me up on Twitter and I will join your squad. I bet you, Kyle will like your squad. Kyle, maybe I will make sure that you and I become part of a squad after this is over?

Kyle: I love it. I love it.

Nicole Hurd: We just did a voting promotion for the advisers with Daveed Diggs. I’m going to make sure Daveed joins our squad, but we’re going to get a bunch of people to join the CAC family squad. So, everybody makes sure you get on and you vote.

Kyle: Yes, and share it, you know, we also have this campaign for Gen Z called Vote Loud and, you know, create your voting squad and vote loud. Even if you’re just mailing it in. Talk about it, tweet about it, Instagram about it, TikTok about it. Make sure everyone in your life sees that you’re, sees that you’re bringing people together to vote.

People seeing on Facebook that their friends vote and that their, as you said, anyone sort of near peer, that is the most powerful effect on turnout that we can possibly have is spreading the word through the channels that we know. I love all the work that we do, we’ve texted 11 million people.

But the most powerful thing is when we’re talking to people and pushing them to talk to their community. We call it relational organizing. Talk to the folks in your life, share it on your channels and spread the word in whatever way you can.

Nicole Hurd: So, Kyle, if anybody’s out there, and I hope they’re not, but if anybody’s out there wondering like, should I really do this?

Does it matter? Right. Again, I hope we’re not in that place. I hope people know that this is probably one of the most important things do is vote. It’s probably one of the best uses of our voice.

Like I said, hopefully College Advising Corps, we’re all using our voice every day, and this is just one special day to make sure we do use our voice. But if anybody is out there thinking, why should I do this? Or why this is important? Or what does it matter? What are you all saying at When We All Vote for why is this is important or why do you use your voice right now?

Kyle: We did focus groups with unregistered voters, with unlikely voters, and the number one person in terms of getting someone to vote was them hearing from a friend or a family member or a near peer. And, I think that people often assume that everyone in their life is already doing this. A 100 million people who were eligible to vote in 2016, didn’t vote. In 2018, the percentage of young people that voted went up 10%, but still two thirds of young people didn’t vote in 2018.

So, there’s so much room to grow here. No one’s going to get mad at you for texting them or tweeting at them, or posting on Facebook, or TikTok, Instagram, or Snapchat, wherever you spread the word. No one’s going to be like, why is this person doing that? Everybody wants to hear.

Frankly, a lot of the people who don’t vote, it goes back to that confidence issue that I mentioned earlier. People are almost afraid to ask because they think they should know all this information before. So be that friend that’s helping nudge your friends along in the process, and don’t feel like it’s in any way a negative. It has a profound, positive effect when you communicate directly with the people in your life, and when you share the fact that you’re voting publicly. One of the little things that I always love was that “I Voted” sticker that people will get when they go to the polls. The “I Voted” sticker actually has a huge impact on turnout because people like showing that they’re a voter. It also is like the most tweeted photo ever. Everyone takes their selfie with the “I Voted” sticker, including myself and my wife, and as you said, my two kids. It is a way to spread the word.

Bring people with you proactively, share that voting selfie. All of this creates an atmosphere where everyone wants to take part in our democracy. Just be someone who can communicate with your friends, who’s open to being asked questions about it. Obviously get educated yourself.

Early voting starts a little bit late in Maryland, it starts on the 26th of October. So, I’m still doing my research and I feel okay about that, but I’m looking up and down the ballot. We have to vote for judges in Maryland and Montgomery County where I live. We have to vote for a few ballot measures.

People don’t know this stuff automatically, and their friends, who they trust, are the best folks to educate them.

Nicole Hurd: Kyle, I’m so glad you brought this up because I think the other thing is, you’re doing this for the long haul. This isn’t just about the 2020 election. This is about changing the culture and changing the participation for the long haul.

So, elections after 2020. But the other thing is this is important election, not just because we’re in a presidential cycle, but this is an important election for exactly what you said. There are so many down-ballot races that matter right now, right? So, the other thing, just like you said, I want to encourage everybody to look at what those down-ballot issues are and make sure you inform yourself and you vote because it’s not just about the top of the ticket. There’s a lot going on in the world right now, and your voice matters on all those. When you check a box, you’re speaking more than once, right?

Every time you check a box, your voice is being used on that race or on that issue. We need to make sure that we do this every time there’s an election. Like I said, this presidential election has all of our attention right now but, there’s something about the work you’re doing that’s much more about systemic change and about really making sure that we use our voices, even when it’s not a presidential election.

Kyle: Yeah, and the number one indicator of if someone’s going to vote is that they voted previously. So, if you get a young person or anyone to vote for the first time, this year, you’re having a profound impact, not only on their voting habits this year, but you’re pushing them into the category of their voters. They’re probably going to vote next time. You should still nudge them in 2021 or 2022 to make sure that they do, but you’re creating new voters for the long-term. And so, and then Nicole, you’re absolutely right, I have a school board race in my hometown here.

When it comes to issues of education, criminal justice, so many transportations, so many of the issues that affect their daily lives are somewhat impacted by the presidency, but often more impacted by our local and our state officials. There are a lot of those races on the ballot this year.

There’s obviously contested Senate races and House of Representatives races around the country. If you go to our site where you can make a plan to vote, you can also use our ballot tool and actually see everything that’s going to be on your ballot in your community, which I found super helpful.

Even for someone who’s an informed voter, it’s all in one place and you can get all the information you need. So, we’ll just encourage folks to take the time to get educated on this stuff. And then as I said, don’t just do it for yourself, get educated so you can help your friends through the process, and be that person in your group who folks text to ask about this. It is a lot. You have to do a little bit of research. You have to understand what’s on the ballot, you have to understand the voting process. So, take that extra step to be the informed voter, and then help make it as easy as possible as you can for your friends.

Nicole Hurd: That reminds me that, democracy is work, right? This is one of those times where we get to do the work. So, we need to step up and do the work right now. Kyle, just so everybody knows, can you rattle off—and we’ll make sure we link this—the website for When We all Vote, and where they can find all of those great resources you’re talking about?

Kyle: I want to make sure I mentioned, whenweallvote.org, a one-stop shop for everything that you need. I also want to mention, we have a whole program focused on, the K-12 system called My School Votes. And it’s anywhere from one fifth to one sixth of high school seniors, can actually vote in this election.

In a nonpartisan way, you can be engaging the students that you’re counseling about college. You can be engaging them on voting. We’ve had over 20,000 educators and high school students engaged in our, My School Votes program. To spread the word, we did 2,000 classroom visits a couple of weeks ago during our registration week of action, where we had students literally going into different classrooms—mostly on zoom—and educating their peers about the voting process. So, there are a lot of ways we just encourage folks to be creative, whatever way you can. Reach as many people in your network as possible. We sort of built our system to be a one-stop shop for you and for the people in your lives.

So, whenweallvote.org, we have a registration tool for the states that that’s still open, we have a make a plan tool where you can find your polling place and you can find your ballot. We have all the information you need on early voting, on the rules around absentee voting. So, we try to make it as simple as possible for everybody

Nicole Hurd: Well, I want everybody to go to that site because there’s a lot of clarity on that site. In a world that can be a little confusing, it’s a place that you can navigate all this. I will say my daughter, Monica, is a freshman in college and she just absentee voted for the very first time she voted.

My parents are, uh, older than my daughter—I won’t say how old they are—but they have now both voted. So, we’ve got a squad going on in my family, which is generational. So, remember to call your parents or your grandparents, right? Remember to call your friends and family.

Don’t take for granted that anybody in your network has voted, right? It makes me so happy that my dad, who’s 86, and my daughter, who’s 19, both voted this time. Thinking about just that span and what it means about both their stories that they voted. What it means about their feeling about democracy and their duty to step up and use their voices right now. And so, I think we just got to keep encouraging everybody in our networks to vote.

Kyle: The last thing I’ll just say on that too is, again, as a nonpartisan organization, I actually think it’s a really powerful lens to come to people about voting with because—and I’ve worked for partisan organizations and nonpartisan organizations—when you’re working for a partisan organization, you’re going to people and saying vote for this person or vote for that issue. What we’re trying to do, and what I encourage folks to do is, especially when you’re talking to people who might be voting the first time, you’re basically starting a conversation. You’re saying, what do you care about? Okay. That’s why you should vote. You’re not telling people what to do. You’re not coming to them at the end saying, do something for me.

You’re saying, do something for yourself. Do something for your country, do something for your community by making your voice heard on the issues that you care about. I just think that’s a really powerful lens to actually motivate people to follow up and to follow through and get this done.

Nicole Hurd: Well, we always say the foremost important words any adviser says to a student or that we say to each other in a professional context, obviously in a personal context, you can say, I love you, but in a professional context you say, I believe in you. And I do think, when we vote is a way of saying, I believe in this democracy, right?

I believe in my voice, and also in the collective. I believe in the power of us all being bound together and what it means to participate in that.

So, Kyle, as always, I’m just so grateful to spend time with you and so grateful for your work. You have been one of those people who’s radiated, light, and love and opportunity through the whole time I’ve known you, and I can’t wait to continue this dream together. So, thank you for joining the podcast, and thank you for encouraging everybody to vote. You’re now in my squad.

Kyle: I love it! Great squad, thank you, Nicole, and thanks to everyone who’s affiliated with this organization. You guys do unbelievable work. It’s been amazing to follow you over the last many years and just see it grow and see its impact grow.

You guys are already adding democracy as a part of your mission, it sounds like, which is awesome. That’s the only way we’re going to be successful as a country, is if more organizations like yours, take up this call and make democracy part of everything that they’re doing.

So, thank you for everything you’re doing and for helping spread the word.

Nicole Hurd: Well, everybody vote. This is the Knowledge for College podcast. I’m so glad you got to meet my friend Kyle today. And if you haven’t voted yet, please vote. It’s so, so important. Until next time, we believe in you and thank you for joining us.