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Credit: Maria Murad

Penn Democrats is planning to mobilize thousands of Philadelphia students living near the University in hopes of increasing voter turnout in Pennsylvania, a critical state in November's presidential election. 

Beginning Sept. 20, Penn Dems members and volunteers will distribute forms to request vote-by-mail ballots and voter registration forms at the doors of nearly every off-campus residence near the University. The group will drop off about 5,000 forms to Penn students living in about 600 off-campus residences including The Radian, Hamilton Court, open Greek life houses, and houses along neighboring streets.

Penn Dems Political Director and College junior Michael Nevett said that most Penn students are less likely to be registered or prepared to vote in Philadelphia because eligible voters need a Pennsylvania driver’s license in order to request a vote-by-mail ballot online in the state. Already, fewer Penn students than normal — particularly first years — are eligible to vote in Pennsylvania due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the University’s resulting campus shutdown. So this year, he believes it is vital that all Penn students registered to vote in Pennsylvania do so.

The goal of the initiative is to make it easier and free-of-charge for undergraduates living near campus to have the materials to get their vote in on time, Nevett said. Considering that many students rely on Penn’s now-closed libraries and campus services for free printer access and office materials, each package the club distributes will contain forms, envelopes, stamps, and address labels for City Hall. Swing The Vote 2020, an organization that supplies college students in swing states with voting packets, supplied Penn Dems with many of the materials. 

“We really have to make sure that the thousands of students who are here are ready to vote,” Penn Dems Communications Director and College sophomore Emma Wennberg said. “It's only September, so it seems like the election is very far away but because of all the complications with voting by mail and the USPS, it's super important that we start early and we start now in making sure that students are preparing to vote, whether that's registering or applying to vote by mail.” 

Mail delivery issues in the Philadelphia region may disenfranchise or deter people from voting by mail this year because they may not receive or return their ballots in time or because they do not trust the Post Office, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in August.

Wennberg and her roommates prepare voter packages for delivery. (Photo from Emma Wennberg)

A few dozen volunteers, including Penn Dems members and members’ friends, have been assembling the packages in preparation for Sunday. Penn Dems Political Senior Deputy and College sophomore Noah Lewine, who is Nevett’s roommate, said each individual has been bagging about 200 to 300 mail-in ballot application forms per day. Lewine said he is heartened by the number of volunteers who have shown up, and believes they are a testament to the importance of this election and how motivated many young people are to participate.

Wennberg said Pennsylvania may be the most crucial state for the 2020 election. According to a recent FiveThirtyEight analysis, Pennsylvania appears to be the single most important state in deciding the election outcome with its ability to give either President and 1968 Wharton graduate Donald Trump or former Vice President and Penn professor Joe Biden a decisive edge in the Electoral College.

“There are a lot of policy changes that this experience has shown are necessary because they try to leave young people behind, but we won't let them, because we will out-organize them and outwork them, and just outvote them,” Nevett said, referring to recent actions by the Trump campaign and other officials to perpetuate voter suppression against young people and disenfranchised communities.  

In late June, the Trump re-election campaign sued Pennsylvania — one of the few states the campaign is filing lawsuits against — calling mail ballot drop boxes unconstitutional in attempts to bar them at the federal level. The United States District Court has since ruled against the president’s claims. 

But Wennberg remains cautiously optimistic about young Democratic voter turnout at the polls. Although she said students are aware and excited about the election among students, she advised people to prepare to vote as early as possible to avoid complications of mail-in ballots.

Despite cautions with vote-by-mail procedures amid the pandemic, Nevett said he is confident in the wave of political engagement he is witnessing from his peers and students nationwide.

“I think there’s so much enthusiasm from the general student body, just like we’ve seen across the country even,” he said. “It’s been extremely clear with Penn students how engaged we all are because this is such an important action.”