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Office of Government Relations tackles topics that matter to students

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Many students know about the Associated Students of the University of Washington (ASUW), but behind the scenes of the student government are many different working parts. One of them is the Office of Government Relations (OGR).

“I think it’s a fantastic place and a fantastic way to get involved,” OGR director Alex Wirth said. “I can see the impact of my work on students from the changes I’m making in a real sense.”

OGR lobbies on behalf of the UW’s student body in the city hall, in executive offices, and in the Washington State Legislature. Student employees and volunteers within OGR lobbied extensively last year for the tuition freeze that has now been implemented for in-state students.

As director, it is primarily Wirth’s job to talk with the state legislature this year. OGR’s official lobbying agenda won’t be out until Nov. 8, but Wirth did list a couple of primary items: maintaining the tuition freeze or lowering tuition and getting full funding for the State Need Grant.

“The state has taken a lot of good steps in higher education especially around affordability,” Wirth said. “We’re confident that we can at least maintain our current level of affordability, if not working with the legislature to bring that down.”

Wirth said he’s been working with 16 legislators on the matter so far.

The lobbying agenda will be much more extensive when it’s posted, and will include other things like reforming how the university and government respond to and prevent sexual assault, making campus more accessible to students with disabilities, and expanding majors.

“A lot of the success of ASUW, and OGR in particular, really hinges on the engagement we can have from students in the legislature,” Wirth said. “[That’s] something I think we’re going to make a really high priority this year.”

He worries students aren’t aware of their options to make their voices heard. It’s as easy as showing up to a hearing on a bill and testifying how they feel about it.

Kate Graham, legislative programming coordinator for OGR, handles student engagement. This year was the first time the office was registering students to vote inside campus dorms, but now the voter registration deadline has passed.

“Now we’re just focusing on getting out the vote,” Graham said. “Letting students know how they can vote, making sure they have ballots.”

She noted that the OGR is producing an online campaign called “I got my ballot, now what?”, which was launched last Friday, Oct. 28. The team will also have launched Rock the Vote on Nov. 2.

Of all the students at the UW, there are over 21,000 who are eligible to vote, but that doesn’t mean all of them will.

But for the ones who plan on it, Graham said it’s important to make ballots accessible, as well as to cast them quickly and early.

“The benefit of getting your ballot in early is if you mess up — like your signature or something else — some things can get caught by election officials, who alert you and get it solved,” she said.

The biggest push from OGR has been the new ballot drop box by Schmitz Hall, according to Graham. It took nearly a decade of student advocacy to establish the drop box.

“It was kind of this ongoing fight between some campus architects and city auditors,” Graham said. “So just navigating the bureaucracy.”

Assistant director of OGR Tyler Pichette meets with local government entities, such as the Seattle City Council, the King County Council, and the Office of the Mayor. He meets with them one to three times a week.

Pichette noted ASUW would likely be focusing on getting better mental health resources around campus, but he also included homelessness, transportation, and affordable housing as things on his local radar.

The team at the ASUW OGR urges students to contact them if they have any questions about local, state, or the UW student government.

“It’s really busy. It’s really intense,” Wirth said of his job. “But at the same time, it’s really rewarding.”


Reach reporter Kelsey Hamlin at Twitter: @ItsKelseyHamlin

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