“You’re automatically registered to vote when you turn eighteen in Canada,” the longtime social activist and community volunteer explains—and “everyone votes.” When Wares moved to Ann Arbor in 1968 for grad school and realized that wasn’t the case here, she thought, “This isn’t right.”
In the late 2010s, she got involved in the local League of Women Voters—and when she learned that the group wanted to register high school students, she says, she “was immediately excited about the project.
“It was a lot of work that first time in 2018,” Wares recalls. “A lot of phone calls. A lot of finding the right person. Getting a committee together … We worked very closely with the county clerk.”
She found an ally in Dexter High School junior Rose Reilly. Reilly recalls that she was already interested in politics, on the debate team, and was “looking for a way to translate that interest into some sort of action.”
Reilly registered students as a community service project between her junior and senior years and has continued ever since. (She’s now a junior at U-M’s Gerald Ford School of Public Policy.) “We did it either in the theater or the library and called it Voter Registration Day,” she recalls.
“We don’t give a talk,” explains Wares. “We show them the statistics about how important their vote is.” One slide pointed out that in 2016, “the Michigan election for president was decided by 10,704 votes out of 6 million.
“That shows them right there that their vote can make a difference,” Wares says. “The teachers appreciate that we stick to the facts.
“Then we do a slide show of how you register—online or on a paper form. If it’s a small group, most will register with the paper form. If they’re a large group, like in an auditorium with 300 people, then a lot of them register online. We put a QR [quick response code] on the slide, and all they have to do is put their phones up to the slide and it takes them to the [state registration] website.”
When the schools went virtual at the start of the pandemic, Wares, seventy, especially appreciated Reilly’s tech skills. They had to turn their in-person slide show into a remotely delivered video, Wares recalls, but she was slow. Reilly “just does it … I really was looking for a partner and did not know how good she was until we started working together.”
And “Rose just really cares about democracy,” Wares adds. “Some kids are just really passionate about this. Rose is fabulous.”
They went back into schools this past spring, starting with Greenhills. “There were about sixty kids there, and about fifty of them registered!” Wares recalls. “I was just completely blown away! [I thought] ‘Wow. This is really important.’ That was big.”
In the 2018–19 and 2019–20 school years, “we registered over 1100 students each year in the high schools and 400 students at WCC,” she emails. “The students are tremendously fired up to vote.”
Reilly says that what makes Wares so successful at registering high schoolers, and such a great mentor, is “her level of tenacity. She will not take ‘no’ for an answer … She’s the root of a lot of really exciting work that I’m so glad to be a part of.”
Wares also connected Reilly to Edie Goldenberg, U-M professor emerita of public policy and political science and former dean of LS&A. Goldenberg created Turn Up Turnout, a student-led nonpartisan organization whose mission is to increase voter registration and turnout of college students. “It was my work-study first year, and Edie and I arranged it so we have grant funding, so she could pay us through the summer as well,” Reilly says.
After she finishes her degree in public policy, Reilly wants to go to law school and eventually work in election law and voting-rights enforcement. Until then, she says, registering voters is something important she can contribute to her community “at a time when we’re super divided.
“No matter where you land on the political spectrum, or what your beliefs are, we can all believe in democracy.”