Tomorrow, thanks to @RepZoeLofgren‘s nomination, I get to be one of CA’s 55 electors for @JoeBiden and @KamalaHarris. So honored that she chose me for this historic day. I first met @RepZoeLofgren ~7 yrs ago at an in district meeting with @neuronush. pic.twitter.com/9IeFQ5fgSH
— Katie Wilkinson (@DrK_Wilkinson) December 14, 2020
On Monday, December 14, San José State Biological Sciences Professor Katie Wilkinson traveled to Sacramento to cast her vote as an elector for the electoral college—one of only 538 Americans to participate in this democratic process. She live tweeted her experience and agreed to answer some questions about her day.
What does it mean to be selected as an elector for the electoral college? What criteria does one need to meet?
There is one elector for every Congressional district and one for each of the two state Senators. Each party chooses their slate of electors and the party that wins the state seats their slate at the Electoral College. In this case, the Democrat who holds the elected office or ran against the winning Republican got to nominate an elector to represent their district. Typically people nominate elected officials, activists, or party volunteers to the seats. The role is largely ceremonial, as it should be to respect the will of the state’s voters.
How and when did you find out that you were selected as an elector?
In September, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren called me to ask if I would like to be CA-19’s elector. Sadly I was driving and missed the call, but I immediately emailed to accept the position after hearing the message.
How did it make you feel?
It is an incredible honor to have been chosen. As a California elector, I represented about 500,000 voters, so it is honestly unbelievable that Rep. Lofgren chose me out of all the people doing amazing things in our district.
How has your political advocacy overlapped with your career as a scientist and educator? I remember you mentioning that you had taken a previous student to Rep. Lofgren’s office. What was that like?
In 2013, the sequester led to a huge budget cut for the NIH-supported Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) training program. The MARC program provides support for students in groups underrepresented in science to gain a mentored research experience. The cuts meant that students lost about 40 percent of the tuition support they had been given and also that the program had to cut about half of the training slots. At the time, Joy Franco, ’14 Mechanical Engineering, was a MARC student in my lab and we worked together to provide a script for people to call their legislators about the funding cuts. We also hosted Rep. Mike Honda to tour research labs and talk to the MARC students.
After that experience, I decided I want to learn how to more effectively advocate for the issues I cared about so I became a Society for Neuroscience Early Career Advocacy Fellow. In that program I got mentored support in learning how to navigate visits with elected officials and how to structure the meetings. In fact, I first met Rep. Lofgren when I scheduled an in district meeting with her. Usually you talk to Congressional staff, but I was offered a last minute opening with the Congresswoman because her office said she was a big supporter of women in STEM. I brought a research student from my lab, Anusha Allawala, ’15 Biomedical Engineering, with me to give a student’s perspective. Anusha was also supported by the Department of Education’s McNair Fellowship program and did a great job explaining the challenges she faced as a first generation college student and recent immigrant to the United States. Rep. Lofgren was also a first generation college student and they had a great conversation. Rep. Lofgren has also visited SJSU to tour research labs and it was great to see students in the lab explain their projects and illustrate firsthand how important federal investment is for SJSU science.
To stay involved in science policy, I joined the American Physiological Society’s Science Policy Committee and, starting in May 2021, I will chair that committee. This is a very exciting opportunity to help shape the issues that the society advocates for and to provide a non-Research Intensive Institution’s perspective.
Tell me about your day. How many people were at the capital? Was it your first time there? What did it feel like to cast your vote?
This was my first time visiting the Capitol Building. The Capitol was empty except for the 55 Electors and minimal staff to help maintain social distancing. We were all given KN95 masks to wear and had to stay six feet away from each other at all times. The actual Electoral College meeting is fairly scripted. We started by taking the Electoral College Oath. Then we nominated and elected an Electoral College Chairperson, Assemblymember Shirley Weber and Secretary Franklin Lima. A few electors couldn’t make it, so replacement electors were nominated, elected, and given their oaths. Then we cast our ballots for President. We were given official ballots to sign and they were collected and counted by the Secretary.
When the Chairwoman announced the 55 ayes for President-elect Biden, there was a huge round of applause. We did the same thing for Vice President-elect Harris. After that, we all had to sign official documents affirming the accuracy of the vote and then were dismissed. The Chairwoman announced that with our California Electoral College votes Joe Biden had over the 270 needed to be elected. The most special thing about the day for me, though, was getting to cast another ballot for the first female Vice President. Since I was a kid I’ve been disappointed that we’ve never had a woman in the White House, so getting to be part of this election was extra special. I have a five-year-old daughter and I’m so excited that the first presidential administration she will pay attention to has a woman of color as Vice President. Our daughter was really excited to learn that Kamala Harris’s mom was an immigrant from the same part of India as her dad.
What message would you want to share about civic engagement and staying active in local, statewide and national politics?
It is easy to feel like your single vote or call doesn’t matter, but the truth is our elected officials are literally paid to listen to what we have to say. A pretty small percentage of people actively engage with their representatives so you can help educate them on your issues. Politicians want to hear personal stories that they can use when arguing for a position and their offices do tally phone calls and letters. It can also seem intimidating to talk to your elected officials, but once you do it a few times, it gets much easier. It’s especially helpful to go to a meeting with someone who has done it before or a group of people.