For the College’s Get Out the Vote Steering Committee, the challenge is clear: Make sure Swarthmore does everything in its power to get students to engage meaningfully in the political process for the 2018 midterm election and beyond.
To achieve it, the committee, which includes students, staff, and faculty from across campus, developed and executed a holistic and inclusive—eventually corralling even Phineas and his giant pencil—action plan.
With less than a week to go until Election Day, optimism abounds.
“The buzz about voting is definitely growing on campus,” says committee chair Emily Weisgrau, director of advancement communications. “Outreach has increased dramatically since 2016, and we know it’s resonating because people are responding to it. Faculty and staff are reaching out about volunteering on Election Day. Issue-based student groups have been doing great work to register voters in addition to the political party groups. And I think it’s all going to add up to greater turnout on Nov. 6.”
President Valerie Smith convened the committee last year. It was in part a response to the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement and its 2014 midterm election report [PDF] that was brought to Smith’s attention by David Meyers ’75, CEO of consulting firm Eastern Research Group. The report showed only 16.9 percent of eligible Swarthmore students voted in that election.
“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 told the Bulletin. “But many who register aren’t turning out to cast their votes. That’s why I’ve convened a committee to examine and address the barriers to voting among Swarthmore students.”
Meyers also encouraged the College to connect with the Campus Vote Project, which brought the committee grant funding for two student fellows (Simran Singh ’19 and Jacob Demree ’19) and to fuel its overall action plan. Earlier this week, the committee received a second grant from Students Learn, Students Vote.
The committee helped encourage participation in last May’s primary election, registered new students on move-in day and at orientation in August, and developed a one-stop shop of voting resources online. Throughout the semester, Demree, a medical anthropology special major from Mount Laurel, N.J., and coordinator of Swarthmore Political Access Network (SPAN), held study breaks in Shane Lounge to guide students on registering or obtaining absentee ballots. For this year’s midterm election, the aim is to double the number of Swarthmore students who voted in 2014—from 224 to 448.
In late October, the committee presented a panel discussion on the importance of midterm elections with esteemed political scientists Patrick Egan ’92 and Frances Lee, and last week it rolled out a “voting buddies” social media campaign.
“The Get Out the Vote initiative has been, to my mind, a model for liberal arts colleges,” says Rick Valelly '75, Claude C. Smith ’14 Professor of Political Science, who serves on the committee and arranged the panel discussion.
The committee’s efforts have also dovetailed with those of other students and alumni, on and off campus, among them Lizzy Stant ’19, a neuroscience special major from Dover, Del., who as a resident assistant enlisted Willets Hall students to vote together; and Emma Walker ’20, a sociology & anthropology major from Kingston, Jamaica, who was one of 18 Sunrise volunteers who held rallies and registered voters in Pennsylvania this summer.
But the action is far from over. For Election Day, the committee is providing transportation for students to and from the polls, a food truck between Parrish Hall and Kohlberg Hall, a SPAN-organized political engagement fair on Parrish Beach, and a watch party where community members can track the returns.
Reflecting on the committee’s efforts the past few months, Demree and Singh both laud the value of a wide range of viewpoints.
“It’s really amazing what you can achieve when you bring together very different perspectives with a common focus on a very real challenge,” says Singh, an honors economics and political science major from Phoenixville, Pa., and associate for political engagement and public policy at the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility.
“I had the opportunity to interact with members from a range of departments and offices here who shared the common goal of bolstering participation in the electoral process,” adds Demree. “Though we have yet to see if our initiatives have resulted in a quantitative shift, I feel confident in saying that the existence of the committee as an interdepartmental body on campus is an important step forward in generating a novel strategy for engaging students in politics.”
Indeed, committee members expect their actions to pay dividends not just for 2018 but for the next several elections.
“No matter how many students vote next week, we’ll evaluate all of our efforts this year and refine our plan for 2019 and 2020,” says Weisgrau. “This is Swarthmore. We learn by doing.”