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ARCH, Penn's cultural resources center, will serve as a voting location on Nov. 8.

Credit: Jesse Zhang

Ahead of the November midterm elections, Penn student groups representing historically marginalized communities are pursuing efforts to encourage voter turnout and increase access to resources on Election Day.

Student groups pursuing these efforts include UMOJA, the umbrella organization for Black student groups on campus; the Asian Pacific Student Coalition, the umbrella organization for Asian student groups on campus; and the Queer Student Alliance, which provides inclusive social spaces for queer-identifying students and allies. Student leaders of these organizations told The Daily Pennsylvanian that a lack of outreach and inaccessibility to resources inhibits the ability of marginalized voters to participate in elections.

College senior and UMOJA Political Chair Toluwalase Akinwunmi said that she believes political disillusionment is the biggest barrier to Black voters' civic engagement. 

“A lot of people say, ‘You need to vote in order to fix these things,’ but a lot of Black people have been hearing that for decades,” Akinwunmi said.

She said that, particularly for descendants of enslaved Africans, there is a feeling that systemic injustices are ingrained in American society, and that they will not be so easily changed by simply voting in every election. The lack of visible change that comes with voting can be frustrating, she said, and can ultimately discourage people from showing up to vote every election cycle.

“It will definitely take a long time to see the changes that we want, but it's important to keep moving the needle in that direction,” Akinwunmi said.

Similar to Akinwunmi, College senior and QSA Chair Isabella Schlact said that voter apathy also significantly impacts voter turnout — or the lack thereof — among queer voters.

“It can be really frustrating to turn out for election after election and to have progress and not move at the speed that you wanted to see,” Schlact said.

APSC Political Chair and College sophomore Taryn Flaherty said that the Asian American voting community faces a unique hurdle: the language barrier.

Flaherty said that a significant portion of Asian Americans, particularly in Philadelphia, are not born in the United States, and thus do not speak English as their first language — if at all. She said that this poses a serious barrier to voting and obtaining election information, which is chiefly disseminated in English.

Pennsylvania offered Chinese as a language on the ballot for the first time during its last election cycle, Flaherty said, which was a “huge win” for the Asian American community.

“However, once again, this is only Chinese,” she said. “And even though Chinese speakers are a huge population, we are — specifically in Philadelphia — leaving behind a very vibrant and ever-growing Vietnamese population, Korean population, and Indian population. A lot of our other Southeast, South Asian, and West Asian populations are really being left behind.”

This lack of sufficient outreach to Asian American communities is reminiscent of a historical trend of Asian Americans being seen as an inactive voting group, Flaherty said, which results in a lack of outreach towards Asian American voters, making it more difficult for citizens to obtain information about voter registration, polling places, and relevant issues at stake during each election cycle.

Flaherty cited The Philadelphia Inquirer’s recent publication of an article in Chinese, as well as in English, as a huge win for the Asian American community in Philadelphia.

“When coming to decide who they're voting for in the next couple of years, [Asian Americans] are a crucial group to think about and to really get involved, because politics has so much to do with their everyday lives, their businesses, and their homes,” Flaherty said.

In a national context, Schlact said that this November's elections are “more important than ever” for LGBTQ rights.

“We are seeing, on a large scale, a planned attack on trans rights and on queer rights — both in schools and in other spaces,” Schlact said. “It's scary to think that these laws that some people might take for granted are used as a political pawn and that people's rights can be reversed.”

One of the most common obstacles that Schlact has noticed that any college-aged voter faces is not knowing where to go to vote. QSA recently collaborated with the LGBT Center and Penn Leads the Vote, a nonpartisan student-run political program on campus, to host a social event encouraging voter registration and providing logistical information to Penn students. 

Schlact, who is a resident of Florida, said she is used to casting her absentee ballot rather than heading in person to the polls. At QSA’s event, she said that people were surprised to learn that several different polling locations exist for Penn students depending on which college house they live in. 

Clarity surrounding “minor details” like this could be the “make-or-break in making sure that college students turn out to vote,” she said.

Flaherty said she has seen an increased effort to reach Asian American voters in recent years, particularly for the college-aged demographic through phone and text banking. She said that APSC is also planning to collaborate with the Vietnamese Student Association, Oracle Senior Honor Society, and VietLead — a local grassroots organization committed to “organizing in order to build unity towards social justice” — to hold a phone banking event prior to Election Day.

While UMOJA itself has not held any voter engagement events this semester, Akinwunmi said that the University’s historically Black sororities have spearheaded efforts to encourage turnout in recent weeks.

Penn’s Gamma chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, the first Black Greek organization founded on Penn's campus, hosted a midterm elections cookout on Oct. 1 to provide students with information about the upcoming election and an opportunity to register to vote.

“Even though it may seem like nothing is being accomplished, there is stuff that is changing,” Akinwunmi said. “I think we definitely owe it to the populations that are here to help vote the right people in office.”