Talking with Kelly Sheffield on Friday morning, you could hear not just the Wisconsin volleyball coach's excitement on the phone. Rather, you could also nearly feel the energy conveyed about one particular initiative that his program will take part in in just over two months.
Sheffield could not recall if it was March or April when the idea sprung up, nor if it came about on a walk or in the shower, but last week the head coach shared the news on social media: The Badgers' volleyball team will work the voting polls during the Nov. 3 election date.
How fired up is Sheffield about this? In the midst of the conversation late last week, he used the phrase five times (three describing players' reactions, two referencing his own).
Don't just take his word for it, though. Two key Badgers in the program shared similar responses.
"When he told us that he wanted us to volunteer and work at the polls, we're like, ‘Are you serious? It's like a great idea. That's brilliant!,'" senior setter Sydney Hilley told AllBadgers.com on Friday night.
“He has a lot of ideas, but I think this is one of his better ones for sure.”
"I think immediately we were all on board," Big Ten female athlete of the year, Dana Rettke, added on Saturday. "We're super pumped about it."
Sheffield asked the players' opinion about his idea after the Big Ten announced its "postponement" of its fall sports competitions, which includes volleyball. He mentioned having discussions with his wife and his coaching staff before bringing it to the team's attention earlier in August.
"The thing I was really kind of worried about is I didn't want this to feel political," Sheffield said. "That was certainly not the motivation at all, and I didn't want it to feel that way for our players or pressure or anything else. There's also a medical component to it, so people not feeling safe.
"As we talked about the season being over, somebody said, ‘Well, now what?’ I said, ‘Well, it's funny that you said that. This is one of these ideas that’s kind of bounced around in my mind. What do you think?’ And every one of them's like, ‘Man, that sounds awesome. Let's do that.’"
Sheffield waited a couple of weeks before announcing the initiative on Aug. 26, and the process has already started. Both Rettke and Hilley stated assistant coach Gary White sent out information to the team, and Rettke has already registered to work the polls. According to the 6' 8" senior middle blocker—a three-time AVCA first-team All-American and reigning Big Ten player of the year in volleyball—signing up took just about two minutes.
Without even being prompted to declare why he wanted to kick start this type of campaign, Sheffield discussed his hopes for it. The first includes the ability for voices to be heard.
“There's the element of being more engaged, politically. I think sometimes when you're younger you feel like that your voice doesn't matter and actually through the democratic process, it allows us, everybody, to have a voice and to be active in it," Sheffield said. "So there is that, especially in the climate that we're in right now as far as with the protests, the racial climate and the economic climate and political climate and all those things, that people have a lot of opinions, and it gives them a way of being able to communicate."
With the younger generation, Sheffield also noted how with the COVID-19 pandemic, this allows them to step up and work the polls instead of the older population. In answering another question, the coach referenced a website dedicated to that cause called PowerThePolls.org.
It cited a April 2020 Pew Research Center analysis of the 2018 Election Administration and Voting Survey, which found 58% of those who worked the polls during the general election of 2018 were of the age 61 years or older. Diving deeper, a whopping 27% of those workers were 71 or older.
According a page on the United States' Center for Disease Control (CDC)'s website) that was updated as of Aug. 16, "8 out of 10 COVID-19-related deaths reported in the United States have been among adults aged 65 years and older."
"Is there a way of saying, ‘Hey man, send in your mail-in ballots, stay at home. We’ve got this?' Sheffield said. "The younger generation right now can find a way—people that are healthy and active and younger—we've got this right here, for the time being.
“Then the other part of it is that there are so many places, especially in city centers, where there are just long, massive waits [to vote]. There are just massive waits to get in, and so if you get more people to the polls working that those things can be cut down, which just benefits everybody. We'll see how it goes. We're hoping a lot of people jump on.”
AllBadgers.com asked both Hilley and Rettke what message they hope to send or what they hope to accomplish by working the polls on election day. Both echoed Sheffield's comments regarding the ability to keep those who normally do so—who are more at-risk of COVID-19—at home.
For the two All-Americans, the ability to inspire people to vote also plays a huge factor.
"Then the second thing was just our program and Wisconsin and the Big Ten are all really encouraging college-aged people to go out and vote and athletes to go vote, just because historically, younger people have been less likely to exercise that right," Hilley said. "Right now, it's just so important for our voices to be heard. Hopefully with us showing up at the polls and people hearing about the movement, they will at least go out and try to vote.”
Rettke added a day later: "I think that also if people are motivated to get to the polls because a Badger volleyball player is going to be there, that is awesome. If we get even one person to do that, because of that, that is a win for me. I think we just want to get the message out there that we're ready for change, and we're here to give back to our community.
"We're here to just kind of be that role model in our community and know that we're on the forefront of that. I just think that we can be kind of those smiling faces at the polls and to get people excited for the future of our country.”
Rettke used the word "change" a few of times in the course of the talk. What areas does she want this to affect?
She referenced the voting numbers for college-aged people, but she also how the team has been active in conversation about social injustice.
"Whatever that means, we want to make sure that we are working to change something in our country, because what is going on right now, it's heartbreaking," Rettke said. "It's not right, and we want to make sure that everyone does their part in having their voices heard.”
As for next steps, Sheffield mentioned the program will likely hear back in October "with exactly where it is that everybody is off and running to." For now, he continues to look for ways to get others to join the Badgers in signing up.
According to Sheffield, White already has put together an email with information to forward on to other coaches who are interested in starting a similar plan. Rettke also confirmed that a member of the Princeton men's basketball program reached out.
For Sheffield, however, this also believes this goes beyond college athletes to those in the community.
"PowerThePolls.org, it is a nonpartisan place that can help you sign up anywhere in the country to become a poll worker," Sheffield said. "That’s the big part of it. It's nonpartisan. That's gotta be the key. You don't want to feel like you're being manipulated and, 'Here, we're just going to try to get workers in these areas because they vote a certain way and stay away from these other areas.' It shouldn't be about that.”
Sheffield said the conference—which set in motion its own "Voter Registration Initiative" in June—asked his thoughts on if this could be, as he described it, a "Big Ten volleyball thing?" Once again, he feels this goes beyond that.
"I'm like, no, I don't want this to be a Wisconsin volleyball thing," Sheffield said. "I don't want it to be a Wisconsin thing. I don't want it to be a Big Ten [thing]. I think it ought to be across the country.
“What I'm hoping is that schools in all sports, coast-to-coast are engaging in this. Because you see the long lines that [were] happening in Milwaukee in April or you see the long lines in Louisville, or you see the long lines in let's say, Philadelphia. Wisconsin volleyball can't help with any of those things, we can only help in our own county. We can't go and work those places. Actually, Madison is probably one of the cities that has probably the least amount of issues as far as from a voting standpoint. You don't hear a whole lot of people having to wait in line for long hours and things like that. Really, for this to be effective, it needs to be a national thing in my mind.”