‘Motivated to vote’

Co-directors Eva Gonzalez and Harrison Feinman of Penn Leads the Vote push for 100% student voter registration in the Year of Civic Engagement.

amy gutmann penn president with students
President Amy Gutmann at a Penn Leads the Vote election night event, November 2018. 

In a typical year, political science majors Eva Gonzalez and Harrison Feinman would be tabling Locust Walk on behalf of Penn Leads the Vote (PLTV), encouraging passers-by to register. Now in a year where students are more socially distanced than social, co-directors Feinman and Gonzalez are tapping into the Year of Civic Engagement to raise awareness for their nonpartisan cause and further their goal for 100% campus voter registration by 2028.

If the goal is ambitious, so is the track record. PLTV spurred an increase of more than 450% in voter turnout between 2014 and 2018 and is receiving campus-wide support. Penn was designated as the first voter friendly campus in the Ivy League, and President Amy Gutmann recently signed a pledge affirming Penn’s goal of full student voter participation in a nationwide higher education voter engagement campaign. On Tuesday, Sept. 22, in honor of National Voter Registration Day, Provost Wendell Pritchett is sending a campuswide email encouraging all to register.

“I take tremendous pride in Penn Leads the Vote, our student leaders who get the vote out, and the civic engagement of all Penn students,” Gutmann says. “Even while physically apart, our University community unites with a common goal—to be the most informed, active citizens we can be and make our voices, and all the voices around us, heard. This year especially, with a historic election, Penn students possess real power to step up through the essential democratic right and responsibility to vote.”

Learning, teaching, and research

Housed within the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, PLTV is “developing teaching, learning, and research partnerships with faculty and students across Penn” to test different strategies this fall, says Cory Bowman, the Center’s associate director. These strategies include the online platforms Canvas and Motivote, as well as reverse door-knocking, which encourages schools and organizations to reach out to their constituents about voting. The students involved in PLTV have “demonstrated very high levels of organization and creativity” as they pivoted to an online, physically distant model, says Bowman. “Innovation is happening constantly, and we’re doing all the adaptation that is needed for our virtual environment.”

As Penn shifted to an online model, PLTV became “leaders in our campus community in trying to increase the voter participation for young people,” says Dawn Deitch, executive director of the Office of Government and Community Affairs. “They were in position to lead right when the circumstances started to change in the virtual atmosphere.” College is a time of learning and growing when students figure out their identities and priorities and become “stakeholder voters,” she says. “At Penn, as you take on your coursework and become embedded in the campus atmosphere, [students find] a lot of other forms of civic activity—like policy initiatives—aren’t as meaningful if they’re not doing the baseline work as individuals. Voting is part of that.”

Voting is essential to the campus environment; it’s “part of your learning experience,” Feinman, a junior from Los Angeles, California, says. “Being in college is not just learning calculus, it’s learning how to be a good citizen.”

Penn has embraced an aggressive and expansive movement for student-led, nonpartisan voter engagement, Deitch says, and this year, voter registration information was included in the new student orientation online platform. As part of that push, PLTV garnered a total of 180 volunteers working on different tasks in different teams, including class presentations and videos for social media, says Gonzalez, a junior from Ardmore, Pennsylvania. “We’ve really seen a huge amount of passion and drive and desire to be more engaged,” she says. “The number of volunteers speaks to that. Students are really motivated to vote in November.”

Reverse door-knocking

Students are more likely to engage with PLTV when the pitch is coming from a peer or leader of a group they’re already involved with, says Feinman. To capitalize on this, PLTV started reaching out to student groups and organizations in reverse-door knocking, a strategy they’ve utilized over the past two years. They’ve been able to partner with Penn Athletics, Penn Panhellenic, and the Government and Politics Association, among others.

We’ve really seen a huge amount of passion and drive and desire to be more engaged. … Students are really motivated to vote in November. Eva Gonzalez, co-director of Penn Leads the Vote

“This has been shown to significantly increase the likelihood that people will be responsive to outreach efforts,” Gonzalez says. “While this is valuable during a ‘normal’ year when we are on campus, this is especially important this semester, when we will not have repeated opportunities to reach students in-person directly.”

Lauren D’Amelia, a Wharton undergraduate concentrating in entrepreneurial management and finance, has been working with PLTV as vice president for community development in the Panhellenic Council. Greek life is about service and philanthropy, D’Amelia says. “Students in Greek life have committed to being part of something bigger than themselves,” she says, and voting is one way to “set up a future that we can all believe in.”

Four smiling people in front of College Hall; three wear "Penn Leads the Vote" t-shirts
President Amy Gutmann (second from left) with (from left to right) Benjamin Oh, former co-director of PLTV and current Emerson Fellow of the Netter Center, along with Harrison Feinman, and Eva Gonzalez. (Pre-pandemic photo)

D’Amelia encourages classmates to get involved. As a resident of Newton, Pennsylvania, she has been voting absentee since age 18. “It’s so easy. You don’t even have to worry about stamps,” she says. “I would say it takes total, 10 minutes of your life.” For those leery of mail-in ballots, “you can always go to City Hall and vote early, or drop your ballot off,” D’Amelia says. “In this current climate, with everything being so turbulent, it is the perfect time to register to vote and make your voice heard for the first time.”

PLTV works to provide students with the information and resources they need to vote by-mail or in-person, regardless of what state they are voting in on Election Day, Feinman says. Instead of a general push to register student voters in Pennsylvania, PLTV tailors information to students to meet them where they are, as “rules vary by state,” he says.

A big shift in civic engagement

The goal this year is to “get PLTV to be more at the forefront of people’s minds when they think about what Penn is doing to engage its students,” Gonzalez says, and in many ways, 2020 has been a game-changer. Employing the research-based strategies espoused by the Netter Center, PLTV has turned to Motivote, an online platform that gamifies voting. “Founded by a Penn alum, the company is based on behavioral science research,” Feinman says. “There’s a very meaningful and data-driven approach to everything we do.”

Penn is part of the National Study of Learning, Study, and Engagement, which compiles voting data for midterm and general elections. The study looks at voting and registration rates, breaking data down by class year and field of study. This revealed a trend, Gonzalez says. “When we look at mathematics majors for midterms, their voting rate is 19.8%, compared to 49.1% for education,” she says. “People who are in the humanities are more likely to be engaged than economics or business.”

The students got buy-in from the School of Arts & Sciences, the School of Nursing, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the Wharton School, all of which are utilizing Canvas modules with voting information including registration deadlines, mail-in ballot requests, and lists of polling places. “Having partners on the institutional level in those schools is really important and shows a big shift in civic engagement,” Gonzalez says.

To spur friendly rivalry, the four schools are also engaged in a Motivote competition, which Wharton is currently leading, says Lee Kramer, director of student life for the school. Voter registration information is readily available in Huntsman Hall when students are physically on campus, so Kramer was interested to work with PLTV as part of the shift to online engagement. PLTV also shared “data from previous elections for Wharton undergraduates, and the data was shockingly low, so my goal was to get those numbers up,” Kramer says.

Being in college is not just learning calculus, it’s learning how to be a good citizen. Harrison Feinman, co-director of Penn Leads the Vote

The Motivote platform provides tasks for students to complete: registering to vote, putting Election Day on your personal calendar, and encouraging friends and classmates to do the same, he says. Even students who are ineligible to vote can get involved. “The Motivote platform provides a great opportunity for all students to be included in this process,” Kramer says. While winning entails prizes and PLTV swag—not to mention bragging rights—the competition “is really to get students registered, to get them to understand the issues, to get them to vote, and to do this in a non-partisan way,” he says.

Voting is an especially important issue for the School of Nursing, says Terri Lipman, assistant dean for community engagement. “It’s very important to know who our legislators are, how they vote on issues, and to exercise power with our vote,” she says. “The School of Nursing is committed to social justice, and voting is a social justice issue. During this time of a pandemic, as well as social and racial unrest, we can feel really powerless. But we have a lot of power with the vote.””

Poised to make a difference

“It’s important for all students to be engaged in the voting process, so that they will have a voice,” says Gonzalez, who cites the importance of being civic-minded and engaged. “Hopefully by getting involved as young adults, they’ll continue to do so and vote post-graduation and throughout their lives.”

students gets a lesson on using voting machine
Penn student gets a lesson on voting machines during New Student Orientation in Houston Hall, fall 2018.

Studies show that instituting voting as a biannual practice helps to establish a voting habit, Bowman says, and PLTV encourages students to vote every spring and every fall. PLTV is “as gung-ho about local elections as we are about presidential elections,” says Feinman. “We’re seeing students opting in more to this election, which hopefully means they’ll get out to the polls this semester and then every semester after as well.”

Young voters are poised to have a powerful impact in Pennsylvania, and this election “will show that we’re a powerful voting bloc and that we can make a difference,” Gonzalez says.

Regardless of the results, PLTV is impartial, data-driven, and focused on the long game. While the rest of the country celebrates and mourns, Nov. 4 will find Feinman and Gonzalez poring over voter engagement data with their PLTV colleagues, strategizing about the next election, and the one after that.

Homepage image: I Voted Today! stickers convey the excitement and enthusiasm of Penn students.