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Credit: Audrey Tirtaguna

The numbers are in — Penn student voting saw unprecedented growth in 2018, and the margins weren’t even close.

According to a new report by the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE), conducted by the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education (IDHE) at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life, Penn student turnout for registered students surged from 24.8% in 2014 to 53.5% in 2018 — a 28.7 point boost that demonstrates Penn’s leadership as the Civic Ivy and validates our designation as the only Voter-Friendly Campus in the Ivy League.

Together, we undoubtedly made history; yet, the need and opportunity for improvement remains. With the November 5th elections quickly approaching, Penn must continue to be a leader in reducing persistent disparities by empowering young, underrepresented voices through voting and civic engagement — and it starts now, with registration.

By all accounts, Penn’s surge outpaced the national average in a historic year when college students began to close the enduring turnout gaps that have plagued our democracy. In 2014, the average voting rate of all US voters was 17.5% higher than the rate for college students. In 2018, that disparity shrank to 10%, as students nationwide turned out at a rate of 40.8%. For perspective, 18-to-29 year olds have only surpassed 20% twice, and never reached 40%, in the 48 years since the 26th Amendment granted most college students the right to vote.

In fact, 2018 was not just a watershed for student voter turnout, it was one of the most diverse in an election cycle that saw the most diverse field of candidates ever. As the NSLVE data for 2018 shows, women continued voting at higher rates than men, while black women remained more reliable voters than any other group at 43% and turnout for Asian and Latinx women tripled. Every group saw double-digit growth in voter turnout, and we became the difference in contended races throughout the country.

So much for millennial voices not counting.

Not only did we become part of history in 2018; Penn did it twice. In May, Penn students again voted in record numbers during Philadelphia’s local primary, despite numerous systematic barriers designed to disenfranchise students throughout Pennsylvania. In fact, led by Penn Leads The Vote’s implementation of Penn’s first-ever absentee ballot campaign for a local primary election, approximately 100 absentee ballots were recorded — the previous record was 2.

Unfortunately, truly equal representation remains distant, and in the midst of historic numbers, we cannot ignore the disparities that persist.

Student voting rates remain 10 percentage points behind the national average, while every racial minority group continues to lag behind their white counterparts, with the exception of black women. Voting rates at Penn continue to trend predictably alongside academic field of study, with some fields like engineering and business voting at approximately half the rate of fields like education. Both turnout and registration continue to be challenges for students, particularly when state laws aim to strip people of their right to vote with closed primaries, late voting dates, no early voting, and an absentee ballot rejection rate 11 times higher than the national average.

Young voters like us cannot continue to be underrepresented in our nation’s electorate. In 2018 and 2019, we showed the country the power of our voices; now it’s time to build on our success. On November 5th, 2019, voters will go to the polls in 33 states and 62 of America's 100 largest cities, including Philadelphia, to vote in races often decided by single digits for the offices that impact our everyday lives. Internal data shows that last year, Penn’s on-campus turnout increased by 464%; now, we have the opportunity to build on that momentum and make a difference once again.

Join Penn Leads The Vote on College Green tomorrow, September 24, from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. for National Voter Registration Day. Register to vote in 5 minutes or less, learn about voting absentee, pick up a t-shirt, enter a raffle, celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, and enjoy free food and coffee while you’re at it. Sign up to volunteer at pennvotes.org or by emailing pennvoters@upenn.edu. All are welcome in this movement, even if you can’t vote, because this isn’t about one person; it’s about all of us.

BENJAMIN OH (C'19) is a Social Policy and Practice student and from Burtonsville, Md. pursuing a Masters of Science in Social Policy. He is the Co-Director of Penn Leads The Vote. His email address is benoh@sas.upenn.edu 

HARRISON FEINMAN is a College sophomore from Los Angeles CA studying politics, legal studies, and history. He is the Co-Director of Penn Leads the Vote, the VP of Federal Affairs for the Penn Policy Consulting Group and Programs Director for Penn Model Congress. His email address is hfeinman@sas.upenn.edu

EVA GONZALEZ is a College sophomore from Ardmore, PA studying political science and Hispanic studies. She is the Co-Director of Penn Leads the Vote, VP of United Nations Affairs for the Penn Policy Consulting Group and Administrative Director for Penn Model Congress. Her email address is evagonz@sas.upenn.edu.

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