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'Every Voice Heard'

A little more than 50 percent of college students—including those at Swarthmore—vote in presidential elections, and less than 20 percent vote in midterms. Yet in Pennsylvania alone, there are more than 600,000 students, large enough to have a real impact.

For the past two years, I have supported several organizations attempting to improve student voting, so I met with President Valerie Smith and outlined steps for Swarthmore. She embraced the idea, and the College has taken action to increase our student voting rate in this year’s midterm elections. (Keep up with these initiatives!)

“Civic engagement is an essential part of Swarthmore’s tradition of social justice, and I’m heartened that the majority of students are registered to vote either in Swarthmore or at home,” Smith says. “But many who register aren’t turning out to cast their votes. That’s why I’ve convened a committee of faculty, staff, and students to examine and address the barriers to voting among Swarthmore students.”

While Swarthmore’s program is off to a very good start, this remains a national problem that we can all help solve. If you have a connection at any institution of higher learning, I encourage you to approach the school at your highest level of access. Together, let’s make every voice heard.

Poll Power

As I mentioned above, one route to political activism is to encourage college students to vote. They have the potential to have a major impact on elections throughout the country, but their voting rates are very low: below 50 percent in presidential elections and below 20 percent in midterms. If you have the opportunity to move a college forward in this area, you have the chance to have an outsize impact.

As I explored college student voting, I became aware that there is much ongoing activity in this area and that progress is being made. There are more than 300 organizations throughout the country involved in student voting, and these organization have formed the Students Learn Students Vote coalition to coordinate their efforts and share best practices. Their website provides resources for new programs, including a planning guide for colleges.

Another key organization in this effort is the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) project, which is run out of Tufts University. For the first time, colleges can receive definitive information about the rate of student voting on their campuses. In a short period of time, NSLVE has managed to sign up more than 1,000 colleges and universities, including the flagship university in every state. NSLVE members receive reports on their student voting rates after each election, which are provided to the school administration. The choice of broader publication is up to the school.

A third organization that plays a significant role in this area is the All-In Campus Democracy Challenge. This organization provides recognition for colleges that achieve various levels of student voting. It also plays a significant role in encouraging universities to establish effective programs and provides technical advice and support to these programs.

I have become familiar with the above organizations by supporting them through donations and technical support for the past two years. It is clear to me that most practitioners in this field believe that an effective college program must be led by an administrator at the college (i.e. a campus champion). Students and faculty must be highly involved, but without a consistent commitment from the top, and the designation of a leader within the school administration, the program will not succeed long term.

Based on the above, if you are willing to play a role in student voting, please attempt to communicate with the school at your highest level of access to do the following:

Swarthmore is doing all of the above and has set a goal of doubling the student voting rate for the coming midterm elections. Bowdoin took those steps and improved their student voting performance by 15 percent over the last presidential cycle. Because so many Swarthmore graduates around the country are involved with universities as professors, administrators, donors, or parents of students, it is my hope that other Swarthmore graduates will become active in promoting student voting.

If I can be of any help, please contact me at