Get out the student vote

Penn Leads the Vote, the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, and the Office of Government and Community Affairs work in tandem to make Penn a civic-minded population of voters in all elections.

A volunteer with Penn Leads the Vote talks with a student outside on College Green
Penn Leads the Vote set up tables on College Green on Sept. 24, National Voter Registration Day, to encourage the Penn community to register to vote.

The Penn community is taking steps to engage young voters on issues that have local, national, and even global impact. Step one: getting everyone on campus registered to vote.

That is one of the core goals of Penn Leads the Vote (PLTV), a student-run nonpartisan organization in the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, that collaborates with the Office of Government and Community Affairs (OGCA), with support from Fox Leadership and the Sachs Program for Arts Innovation.

John Legend waves to crowd
John Legend was the main act for Stand Up & Vote at Penn, performing at Irvine Auditorium for students on Oct. 2.

On Tuesday, Sept. 24, National Voter Registration Day, members of PLTV took to College Green, setting up tables piled with stacks of voter registration forms, and flyers for the Stand-Up & Vote comedy, performance, and voter registration drive on Wednesday, Oct. 2. That event featured John Legend, Mike Birbiglia, Aparna Nancherla, Josh Johnson, and Michelle Wolf, and was co-hosted by President Amy Gutmann. In addition to getting students to register to vote, some for the first time, the hope is to initiate a lifelong habit of voting and civic engagement. 

“Democracy is something we do together,” Legend, a Penn alumnus, told the crowd of students at Irvine Auditorium, adding how all elections matter—the big, presidential ones, as well as the local ones. 

“Every voice needs to be heard at the ballot box,” said Gutmann. “Voting is a right to be treasured.”

“We don’t just register students to vote, although that’s a big part of it,” said Benjamin Oh, director of PLTV and a graduate student at the School of Social Policy & Practice, who received his undergraduate degree from Penn in May. “We encourage students to think about politics and policy and community engagement.” Based on PLTV’s success last year, Penn was recognized as a “Voter Friendly Campus,” one of only 123 in the country and the only in the Ivy League.

Oh and PLTV know that voter engagement and turnout is a challenge during local elections, making a large part of their mission to institute a stronger culture of civic engagement across campus. This includes their goal of increasing turnout for local elections this November. Monday, Oct. 7, is the last day to register to vote before the November election. “We want students to think deeply about the role they have and Penn has in the Philly community,” said Oh. “Lately the political atmosphere has increased, but students still aren’t familiar with city ballot measures during midterm and local elections.” Each year, Oh and the members of PLTV work to convince students that their voices matter in local politics, then provide them the resources to vote in new and engaging ways. 

Penn OGCA ensures voting access on campus, and works to make voting easy, fair, and accessible. The OGCA worked with the city of Philadelphia to establish polling places in campus locations that better serve students, closer to campus housing. 

“Penn has a commitment, but also a responsibility to make voter registration and voting access possible for all eligible students,” said Dawn Deitch, executive director of the OGCA. “We are committed to promoting nonpartisan activities so students recognize their right and their responsibility to vote and engage civically.” 

Along College Green on Sept. 24, PLTV members and volunteers called out as students walked by, asking if they were registered to vote. Those who weren’t, or who wanted to update their voter registration, filled out new registration forms. In addition to snacks and La Colombe coffee handouts, students entered a raffle to guess the percent increase in on-campus voting turnout from 2014 to 2018 (hint: It’s higher than you think—by a lot). PLTV partnered with the Penn Association for Gender Equity to highlight the 100-year anniversary of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. 

Oh and PLTV does its best to educate the Penn community about Philadelphia, and how Penn voters have a direct impact on their city. Election discourse is largely overshadowed by presidential elections, especially now, with a high-profile primary and general election looming. To engage students in the less flashy, less amplified elections, Oh said, “We have to convince students that local politics, and their voice in their community, matter.” 

Oh offered an example: In the May 2019 primary, there were four ballot initiatives. One in particular had a direct impact on the Penn community—making the Philadelphia Office of Immigrant Affairs a permanent office. Oh and PLTV worked to reach students before the election and ask them, “How does this impact me and the people around me? You do your part by making your voice heard.” 

Nikhil Joshi, a first-year Penn student from Irvine, California, said, “I’m excited to vote on the Green New Deal and health care reform.” (Students are often issue-based voters, Oh noted.) Megan Timoney, a first-year student from Morristown, New Jersey, revealed the issue she would be voting on: “I’m talking with my friend; she’s schooling me on the environment and climate change.”

Kenny Pham, a first-year student from Philadelphia, registered to vote specifically for the primaries next year. “I still need to find out where and when to vote,” he said. 

A volunteer with Penn Leads the Vote talks with a student outside on College Green
Amy Gutmann talks with two members of Penn Leads the Vote on College Green.
Penn President Amy Gutmann talks with volunteers with Penn Leads the Vote on National Voter Registration Day on September 24.
Members of Penn Leads the Vote were present on College Green for National Voter Registration Day on Sept. 24, along with President Amy Gutmann. On Oct. 2, they brought Stand Up & Vote to Penn’s campus, featuring John Legend, Mike Birbiglia, Michelle Wolf, and others.

Gutmann also visited the tables along College Green, talking with members of PLTV and students completing voter registration forms. “The thing that young people don’t realize is they are at risk because their interests aren’t represented,” she said.

For faculty and staff members, PLTV knows that their ability to go out and vote on Election Day is as important as registering voters. “Penn has a role in ensuring everyone can vote,” said Oh. “When you make voting accessible across the board, that’s democracy.” 

For Deitch and others at the OGCA, they know their efforts to make voting accessible on campus have been successful when the energy on Election Day is palpable, with students discussing the election and wearing “I Voted” stickers proudly.

“Sometimes students come to us on Election Day and say, ‘I voted absentee, but can I still have an I Voted sticker?’” said Deitch.

Lauren Hertzler contributed reporting to this story.