In 2016, Hillary Clinton lost Pennsylvania by about 44,000 votes, a razor thin margin that gave then-Republican candidate Donald Trump 20 pivotal votes in the Electoral College. Many Philadelphians told themselves that it was steel country, the disaffected mill workers in crumbling and seemingly forgotten towns across PA that made the difference in the last election.
That may have been true, but here at Penn, we know that math is math. So let’s break down the numbers. There are around 1.2 million Philadelphians who are eligible to vote. In 2016, almost 30% were not registered, and of those who were registered, more than a third did not turn out. If just 7% of the 600,000+ Philadelphia citizens whose voices were not represented in 2016 had shown up, we all may have gotten a lot more sleep these past four years.
There’s wide debate as to why so many sat out in 2016, with theories ranging from active voter suppression to apathy toward one or both of the candidates. Many of those concerns still fester. But once again, Pennsylvania will be a pivotal swing state, and with so many critical issues on the ballot - from racial justice and public health to climate change and education reform - we at Penn must do our part to encourage, and even activate, the vote.
The NBA recently pledged their arenas to serve as polling stations on November 3, a brilliant logistical maneuver that can neutralize mail-in ballot challenges and safety issues, while energizing its rabid fan base. What can large, well-resourced and self-proclaimed community-committed universities like Penn do to support efforts to encourage voting and ensure a free and fair election?
Here’s an idea.
What about a massive voter registration and ‘get out the vote’ campaign, co-sponsored by The University of Pennsylvania, School District of Philadelphia, and our professional sports franchises, that is planned, organized, and executed by members of the Penn community?
We have the infrastructure, a brilliant faculty, and a veritable army of bright, motivated students, including those of "Penn Leads the Vote," who can help coordinate and lead such an effort.
So what would that look like?
Currently, due to COVID-19, the school systems’ buses are on hiatus. What if, for the next 50 days, a coalition of Penn students, staff volunteers, and local community organizers board our school buses, ride the customary routes, and walk the neighborhoods to knock on doors, register new voters, and encourage bipartisan turnout. Our local bus drivers can complete their routes, circle back to pick up the volunteers, and return them back to campus.
On November 3, those drivers can drive those same routes, picking up voters and delivering them to and from polling locations for a city-sponsored “Voter Festival.” Together, we can offer safe voting, family entertainment, temporary childcare while parents vote, and a nostalgic ride on a yellow bus, all in strict compliance with social distancing guidelines.
I don’t mean to advocate for one candidate over another. Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden have intimate ties to the University of Pennsylvania – one or both of them have graduated from the University, sent children to Penn, spoken at the school, or have been named a Professor here. This goes beyond partisan politics. It’s our duty to mobilize the University's resources and influence to set an example for our students and stakeholders.
Six months ago, I had the honor of working with three fellow Penn entrepreneurs and dozens of selfless local volunteers to mass produce 65,000 face shields. This life-saving PPE was sent to thousands of health care workers battling on the front lines of the COVID crisis. The effort took vision, careful coordination, and leadership. We faced barriers, operational challenges and occasional feelings of futility. But as a small group of passionate volunteers, we pressed forward and made a difference.
Imagine our city - our schools, our sports franchises, and our alma mater - banding together to champion our most fundamental civic duty. Imagine the bridges we can build with our collective creativity and commitment. Imagine the impact of a grassroots effort to ensure tens of thousands more Philadelphians are empowered by their vote.
Decisions are made by those who show up. The stakes couldn’t be any higher.
JOHN GAMBA is a 1992 College Graduate who serves as Director of Innovative Programs and Entrepreneur in Residence at Catalyst @ Penn GSE