Whether you’re an incoming freshman navigating Penn’s campus for the first time or an upperclassman looking forward to reconnecting with friends, you’re more focused on sorting out your fall semester and settling into West Philadelphia than the upcoming elections. But with three months to go until the Nov. 6 midterm elections, each and every American citizen should take a moment to make sure their voter registration is in order.
If you’re not registered in the Philadelphia area, you should be sure to arrange for an absentee ballot to be sent to wherever you’ll be in late October/early November. This is of course particularly important for any of you headed overseas this fall. Most states provide ample time for all this, but deadlines do vary with some states like Tennessee and Washington requiring receipt of your registration by their fast-approaching Oct. 6 cutoffs. You can check your state’s requirements here or refer to the official United States government site.
While confirming registration status, arranging for absentee balloting, and voting itself should be instinctive and routine for every U.S. citizen of voting age, it is no secret that American voter participation in midterms, primaries and local elections — not to mention presidential contests — is stunningly low. In fact, with an average of 55.7 percent, the United States lags behind most developed countries in voter turnout, especially Belgium, Sweden, and Denmark where well over 80 percent of voters consistently cast their ballots.
Cumbersome registration processes and inconvenient voting are partially to blame for America’s dismal turnout. The fact that “other democracies typically hold elections on the weekend or declare election day a national holiday” whereas US elections are always held on a workday, makes voting a burden for many people, particularly poorer workers who cannot take time off to vote. Whatever your political persuasion, you should find this trend disturbing. As a result of our voting apathy our political system has often been hijacked by individuals who generally have the most extreme views, a reality profoundly present on both sides of the political spectrum.
While there are factors that an individual state cannot directly influence, like when a national election is held, states do have control over some aspects of voter regulations. For example, Minnesota and 14 other states have instituted same day voter registration. As a result of this policy, or at least partially so, “nearly three-quarters of eligible Minnesota residents [cast] a ballot on average over the past four general election cycles, the highest voter turnout rate of any state in the nation”. In stark contrast, in West Virginia where “a conflicting work or school schedule was the most commonly cited reason for not voting … only 52.9% of the electorate” voted “in the four most recent presidential elections.”
So what can we do to help counter low turnouts and our own apathy? In addition to confirming your registration, researching candidates, and being sure to vote, you may want to determine where your vote would have the most impact. While some states try to discourage out-of-state college students from voting in-state, officially, out-of-state students have legal dual residency, so the choice of where to vote is yours.
This means that you can explore whether you’d prefer to vote at your permanent residence, which is likely where you lived before college, or here in Philadelphia. If you do plan to vote here, Penn’s own website provides you with everything you need: http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/vote/. Democratic incumbent Sen. Bob Casey is strongly favored over the Republican challenger, Lou Barletta, in the upcoming senatorial contest, so Pennsylvania may not be the best use of your vote.
If you are politically keen, you should check out the 33 of the Senate’s 100 seats that are being contested this November, and see if your vote could provide you with more “impact satisfaction” in your home state. Depending on your state of permanent residence — and your politics — you may get a kick out of helping “flip” a seat this fall.
Personally, in the 2016 Election, I registered to vote in Arizona where I have residency, and the impact of my voice as a Democrat is substantially more important than in New York, which, due to the Electoral College, almost always swings left.
If you are not a U.S. citizen, but merely a concerned resident, you can still get involved by canvassing, donating to political causes (but not actual candidates unless you have a green card) close to your heart, and always writing to representatives. Even if you are not technically a citizen, policies decided by elected officials still impact and affect your daily life.
Bottom line, whatever your level of political interest and no matter how demanding your academic, extracurricular, and social life may feel, it is important that you take a moment to focus on the upcoming election. While it may feel like individual voices are not heard, why leave the choice of who makes and enforces the laws that govern your world up to other people?
It’s easy to grouse about the election the morning after, but as former President Barack Obama said, “Don’t boo. Vote.”
SPENCER SWANSON is a College sophomore from London, studying philosophy, politics, and economics. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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