With a population of more than 330 million people, the U.S. has a relatively low voter turnout each election cycle. In fact, many would be shocked to know that most Americans do not vote in elections. 

Presidential elections – elections with the highest voter turnout – typically receive less than 140 million votes nationwide – slightly over 40 percent of the population. When taking into consideration registered voters, that percentage increases to – (at most) – a little less than 60 percent turnout. Still, a substantial plurality of non-voters. 

In an effort to increase voter turnout, the University of Pennsylvania is making it a priority to make sure all of their students are registered to vote by 2028 through the program known as Penn Leads the Vote.

Penn Leads the Vote (PLTV) is “a student-run, non-partisan program that increases voter engagement and voting while advancing Penn’s role of supporting the democratic and civic engagement of Penn students.” The group says its commitment is inspired by what university founder Benjamin Franklin described as “an inclination…to serve mankind.”

Teaming up with PTLV is the Penn Netter Center for Community Partnerships, a university center that promotes “democratic university-community engagement.”

“PLTV’s mission is based in a few critical concepts that motivate our work and long-term goals – protecting students’ Constitutional right to vote; encouraging local, active democratic civic engagement, which results in mutual growth and local impact; and strengthening and protecting the health of our future democracy through supporting critical, formative habits regarding voting engagement and education, which have been proven to positively impact students far after their schooling years,” Benjamin Oh, of Emerson Fellow for Netter Center for Community Partnerships told Campus Reform.

The program’s leadership is comprised of students in both the undergraduate and graduate populations. Annually, the leadership of PLTV engages students on campus and teaches them about political issues at all three levels of government – local, state, and national. Concurrently, the program regularly holds voter registration drives on campus to register students. During national elections, PLTV claims it: “connects the Penn community with the resources needed to register and check registration, to be informed, and to get out to the polls.”

“I have always been civically engaged, but PLTV helped me get registered to vote in Pennsylvania,” Penn alum Igor Bronz said. 

“Because Pennsylvania was a swing state and I’m a New Yorker, this was particularly important for me in the 2016 election.”

On June 1, PLTV, in a joint effort with the Office of Government and Community Affairs, and the Netter Center for Community Partnerships released its official 2020-2021 voter engagement action plan.

The plan includes “Implementing comprehensive curricular, co-curricular, and community programming initiatives to advance a mission centered on local, active democratic civic engagement as a critical component of community-building and active engagement.” To achieve this, PLTV has created a detailed set of meetings, events, activities, seminars, educational and engagement opportunities to help advance the goals of the program. 

“I do expect that recent events have increased political enthusiasm and will increase turnout and voter registration among Penn students,” student Andrew Liu said. 

“It will be interesting to see how long it lasts, but I think 100 percent registration is probably an unrealistic goal.”

As of the last midterm elections, PLTV has achieved substantial success in its objectives. The organization claims that their efforts have resulted in two 400 percent+ increases in local voter turnout in the past year, as well as doubling university turnout in the May 2019 local primary. When calculating its efforts from the previous midterm elections in 2014, PLTV saw the overall student voter turnout increase from 19.8 percent in 2014 to 41.8 percent in 2018. 

Yet, despite its success, PLTV has acknowledged there is still a lot of work to be done to achieve its overall objectives. Just under 1,000 students voted in the November 2019 general election and 200 voted in the May 2019 primary election.

In a recent interview with the university’s newspaper The Daily Pennsylvanian, Eva Gonzalez, PLTV co-director, touted the organization’s efforts.

“This just goes to show that the university is actually committed to taking more steps, whether that be at the institutional level or otherwise, towards its efforts in student citizenship engagement work,” Gonzalez said. 

Oh assured Campus Reform that: “As a non-partisan organization, PLTV has always worked towards increasing voter participation for the university community, regardless of political affiliation. Our vision for accomplishing this goal includes improving access to the resources and materials necessary to exercise your Constitutional right to vote.”

In 2019, PLTV held an event that encouraged students to vote with the Stand-Up & Vote comedy troupe – a celebrity-filled soiree that featured Penn alum John Legend and various stand-up comedians. The event was co-hosted by University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann.

However, not all students were thrilled and some questioned the authenticity of the “non-partisan” claims of the group.

“It was a totally fun event and it literally made me register,” said a Penn sophomore who asked to not be identified for this column. 

“But it is hard to say the event is non-partisan when you have two extremist Republican bashers such as John Legend and Michelle Wolf encouraging students to vote. It gives off a vibe that Penn doesn’t really care about their right-wing student voters. A true, non-partisan group would have entertainers from the other side of the political aisle, too. Their political compasses were ‘slightly to the left of Trotsky’ – to quote Ron Swanson,” she said.

Regarding this year, PLTV has recognized the challenges the pandemic will present in voting. In its action plan, PLTV acknowledged that COVID-19 “has necessitated a redesign of engagement and education strategies for the upcoming academic year and foreseeable future. As students were sent home and digital learning became the norm, typical face-to-face engagement and education were no longer viable; we fully expect this to remain true for the November election, if not the May 2021 primary as well.” 

Moving forward, the action plan laid out a continued aggressive push to get students involved and registered. These include registering all eligible students by 2028, and seeing a 75 percent voter turnout rate by that year’s general election.

Oh said: “Young people have always voted at lower rates than other age groups. We believe that increasing access to voting materials and collaborative partnerships will help change this outcome for everyone in the future.”

Chris Tremoglie attends the University of Pennsylvania and recently completed his honors thesis on “Did Glasnost and Perestroika Cause a Rise in Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict in the Post-Soviet Balkans?” He is a summer associate at Broad + Liberty. @chris_tremoglie

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