With the fall semester completely virtual and a historic general election growing closer, Penn’s campus' left-leaning political groups are amping up virtual outreach to first years.
Because recruitment for all clubs will be virtual this year, Penn Democrats and Penn for Biden have begun a big push on social media, posting on their Facebook pages and sending out the interest forms. College senior and Penn Democrats President Owen Voutsinas-Klose said that though there are no in-person events for recruitment, the club has seen more interest this semester than he's ever seen.
"I think it’s going to be the biggest [semester] that our club has ever seen. As a rising senior, I’ve never seen interest in the club this high," Voutsinas-Klose said. "This is the club to be in if you’re interested in making a difference and kicking Donald Trump out of office.”
Penn Democrats have seen over 150 sign-ups after posting about it in the Class of 2024 Facebook group, along with many new Facebook likes and follows on their social media pages. The club has also had incoming freshmen reach out through the new Penn Dems page on the Penn Clubs interface to get involved and ask questions.
All Penn Dems events will be held online through a virtual format and all first-years through upperclassmen are encouraged to participate. Though the club does not usually host events during the summer, they held an informal Zoom session in early July called “get-to-know-you” with about 35 participants to bolster interest.
”Especially given the convention [in August], I think that the interest is definitely very palpable and we’re really excited to involve people,” Voutsinas-Klose said.
After a successful fundraising campaign, the club has been able to establish a paid fellowship for five to six hours a week until election day, phone banking and organizing virtually for all Democratic candidates in Pennsylvania, as well as for Democratic presidential candidate and former Penn professor Joe Biden. The fellowship will pay up to ten or eleven club members to participate in these activities.
“I feel really bad for the incoming freshmen who are stuck at home and can’t come to Philadelphia, but we’re hoping to involve them in some semblance of a normal extracurricular activity, especially one that is so important right now in 2020, so that when they get on campus, they have a club to be a part of, and they’ve done some meaningful things despite being at home,” Voutsinas-Klose said.
College sophomore and Penn for Biden Operations Director Noah Lewine echoed Voutsinas-Klose’s sentiments on engagement with the incoming first-year class.
“We’re really trying to focus on freshman outreach. A huge part of my own freshman year experience and introduction to this new, adult world was being politically active, and so we’re hoping to give the freshmen the opportunity to get involved in the election, even though they aren’t on campus," Lewine said.
Lewine said that through events like virtual phone banks, voter registration and education meetings, and collaboration with other liberal political groups at Penn, the group hopes to ensure that students are remaining politically active, despite the physical separation from campus.
“It’s going to be incredibly important for us, the Biden campaign for young people to get out and vote—especially young people in Philadelphia because Pennsylvania is so critical to the election.”
With the virtual format, Penn Dems can host speakers from around the country, including Mondaire Jones, a primary candidate for the House of Representatives in New York, who would be the first openly gay, Black member of Congress in history.
"I think that a lot of politics has really shifted to completely virtual, and, you know, that’s how we’re going to win this election, so we’ll make do," Voutsinas-Klose said.
Penn Dems is also currently planning “DemCon,” a virtual convention they created, which will include college Democrat groups at other universities that will feature a keynote speaker two weeks before the election. They also intend to have the Attorney General of Pennsylvania Josh Shapiro and many members of Congress speak at upcoming events.
Voutsinas-Klose said the club will spend a lot of energy pushing information about how to vote by mail, especially for upperclassmen who are already registered to vote in Philadelphia. During past elections, Penn Dems has stood on Locust Walk, tabling for specific candidates and encouraging on-campus students to register to vote. But this year, they don't have that option.
Voutsinas-Klose is concerned students might become apathetic about Pennsylvania politics, especially because many are living away from campus, even if they are registered to vote in the state. He also mentioned that Philadelphia could see a decrease in voter turnout due to the lack of registered voters that would have been typical with an on-campus Class of 2024.
“If people are passionate about improving the world we live in and combating climate change and expanding health care, it all starts here and it all starts over these next 74 days in Pennsylvania and with Penn Dems,” Voutsinas-Klose said.