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11-03-20-election-day-2020-houston-hall-polling-chase-sutton
A student enters the Houston Hall polling location on Nov. 3, 2020. Credit: Chase Sutton

Penn achieved record-high voter turnout and registration rates in the 2020 presidential election, a new report found.

Nearly 77% of eligible Penn students voted in the presidential election — a 9.2 percentage point increase from the 2016 election and a 23.1 percentage point increase from the 2018 midterm election, according to data released by the 2020 National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement Campus Report, issued by the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University. 

"Penn students outperformed both the national college student voter turnout rate and general population turnout rate, which were 66% and 67% respectively," a Nov. 9 press release from Penn Leads the Vote, a nonpartisan group, stated. 

Almost 89% of registered students turned out to vote on Election Day last year, compared to 64% in 2018 and 79% in 2016, according to the report. A record number of students — 86.5% — registered to vote in 2020, a slight uptick from rates in 2016 and 2018.

PLTV Co-Director and College senior Eva Gonzalez said she was proud to see that so many registered students “followed through” after registering to vote and participated in the 2020 election. 

Echoing Gonzalez, PLTV Co-Director Harrison Feinman, a senior in the College and School of Social Policy & Practice, was encouraged to see that Penn’s voter turnout rate surpassed the nation's average turnout by nearly 10 percentage points.

The University was also given the Best Action Plan Award out of all four-year institutions Pennsylvania-wide for the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge.

The 2020-21 voter engagement action plan — released last June by PLTV, the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, and the Office of Government and Community — announced the groups' goal to achieve 100% voter registration for Penn's eligible voters by 2028. The 18-page plan focuses on the three groups' voter outreach strategies, short-term and long-term goals for the 2021-2022 academic year, and results of how successful the groups were at achieving their goals. It also outlines community programming initiatives in West Philadelphia.

“It is just a wholehearted rejection, nationally, of the fake stereotype that ‘youth don't care about politics,’ and ‘youth don't vote,’” Feinman said. “Especially on Penn's campus, we are fulfilling our role as the ‘Civic Ivy,’ and the announcement that we were awarded for our action plan is so cool because it shows that Penn is a leader.”

When initially working on the action plan in the months leading up to the 2020 election, Gonzalez and Feinman said they hoped to get 75% of eligible students to vote by the 2028 general election.

“Clearly, either we made a mistake, or Penn students really blew everyone's expectations out of the water, which is super heartening to see,” Feinman said, expressing surprise that Penn students had already exceeded the University's goal eight years in advanced.

Cory Bowman, associate director of the Netter Center, said he was impressed by PLTV’s motivation and how students involved in PLTV have incorporated voter education and civic engagement into many different aspects of the Penn experience. 

PLTV is housed in the Netter Center, which helped reestablish the group in 2018. Bowman said that while students direct most of the work, the Netter Center provides administrative, financial, and organizational support for the program.

“It’s a matter of working with college houses, cultural centers, and Penn athletics,” Bowman said of PLTV's efforts with the University. “[PLTV] has been working with existing social and organizational networks on campus to get the word out about [voter] registration and education. It is increasingly becoming a part of the fiber of being at Penn.”

He added that all institutions of higher education, especially universities that pride themselves on promoting civic engagement like Penn, should ensure that they are providing students with resources and opportunities to vote and actively participate in democracy.

The University sent a mass email encouraging students to educate themselves on National Voter Registration Day, and Penn President Amy Gutmann recently signed onto a pledge affirming the voter engagement plan.

Gonzalez said that while the COVID-19 pandemic and Penn’s virtual setting added obstacles to PLTV's voter mobilization efforts leading up to the 2020 election, it also revealed how essential each voter can be, as elections in some key states were called by close margins.

“People are coming around to realizing how important each singular vote really is,” Gonzalez said. “Some of these races are decided, truly, by a handful of votes, and when you're not voting and getting out there, you are letting someone else decide for you.”

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