2021 marks the 50th anniversary of the ratification of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18 years old for all elections in the United States and prohibited age-based voting discrimination. With this passage of the amendment, 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds were recognized as fully-enfranchised citizens, and in the 50 years since, youth voters have actively exercised this right to shape our democracy.
While many youth voters today may take their right to vote for granted, this anniversary highlights that only a few decades ago, most undergraduate students at Penn were denied access to the ballot on the basis of age alone. Penn students today have political power that — in the history of our nation — is relatively new, and we must exercise it.
Recent data shows that youth voters recognize the importance of participating in elections. In the 2020 presidential election, voter turnout among young people skyrocketed, with 50% of eligible Americans aged 18 to 29 voting in 2020, compared to 39% in the 2016 presidential election. The state of Pennsylvania exceeded this average, with 54% youth voter turnout in the Commonwealth. Penn students should be proud of this turnout and carry this enthusiasm for elections to come.
As Penn students, we have an opportunity to build on this turnout this fall, when there will be local elections in Philadelphia for offices such as district attorney and state and local judges. Local elections allow voters to have a more direct impact on the communities in which they live than presidential elections, as municipal governments make critical decisions regarding many local issues and public services, including criminal justice, education, and public health orders. With elections happening in Philadelphia every fall and spring, it is crucial that students stay engaged members of the community and exercise their right to vote each time.
This August, the Class of 2025 will come to campus for the first time, as well as many members of the Class of 2024. If you are coming to Penn for the first time, or you have simply never registered to vote in Philadelphia before, it is very important that you do so. Penn Leads the Vote is here to help you register to vote and stay informed about the voting process, and we also encourage students to use sites like Ballotpedia to learn about their ballot and relevant local issues. Doing research and staying informed about local issues is a crucial aspect of civic engagement.
Penn students should remember that the ability to participate in democracy is not guaranteed. College students today have more voting rights than they have had for most of American history, and there are significant barriers to student voting in many parts of the country, including in Pennsylvania. Non-presidential spring primaries in Pennsylvania are held after the end of the academic year, students must re-register every time they move addresses (which is once a year for many students), and Penn students must still attend classes on Election Day.
But with a little bit of foresight and the help of Penn Leads the Vote, we can overcome those barriers together. Let’s commemorate the 50th anniversary of the ratification of the 26th Amendment by staying civically engaged, making sure we are registered to vote, and committing to being active participants in our democracy.
PENN LEADS THE VOTE is the University’s non-partisan election hub. Visit www.vote.upenn.edu for more information.