Many Swarthmore students have reported problems with registering to vote in Delaware County before and after this year’s election on Nov. 8th. Some reported a lack of notice from the County Board of Elections that they had not properly registered. Student organizations Swatties for Hillary, College Democrats, and NextGen Climate organized efforts to register voters and to get out the vote, and the college’s Registrar’s Office provided important information regarding how to fill out registration forms accurately and to reach one’s polling location due to the complicated system of voting district lines running through the college.
Because of the distance between the main campus; the residence halls Mary Lyons, Palmer, Pittenger, and Roberts, and the Strath Haven condominiums, students could find themselves in the northern voting precinct if they lived on main campus or the western voting precinct if they lived elsewhere. For other students, though less common, their polling location was in the eastern precinct if they lived east of Route 320, according to the Registrar’s website.
Registrar Martin Warner, who has worked to make voting registration accessible to students under the 1998 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.The act calls for institutions of higher education “to make a good faith effort to make voter registration forms … widely available to students in attendance.” Warner described the structure of the Borough’s precinct lines and the problems associated with them.
“I don’t know why the precinct structure of the Borough of Swarthmore is the way it is, but this has been true for all 20 years I have been at Swarthmore,” Warner said. “This structure has always presented challenges for Swarthmore students, and I wish students would seek to change it. As much as I and others have voiced dissatisfaction with how the precinct lines adversely affect Swarthmore student voter registration, I have never heard any plans to change the system.”
Warner described difficulties of voting at the college and pushed for students to reach out for change in concert with administrators.
In recent elections, Warner has aimed to provide as much information to students as possible.
“My voter information website grew out of that [reauthorization], and a desire to make plain the various matters that Swarthmore students routinely need to understand to register to vote,” said Warner. “I have focused my efforts to make it possible for students to register and to vote in spite of these inconveniences [of polling locations].”
Warner described his efforts to make registration information available to students.
Student efforts to register members of the campus community continued the fall semester. Student groups, some established like College Democrats, and others new like NextGen Climate, organized to register voters through actions like tabling at Sharples in the months preceding the registration deadline, and to mobilize voters through providing transportation to and from polling locations to increase turnout among students. President of Swatties for Hillary and a former Communications Fellow for the Clinton campaign in Columbus, Ohio, Emily Uhlmann ’19 noted the success of her organization and others on campus in engaging students and having them complete necessary forms to vote in Pennsylvania.
“I thought the system that Swatties for Hillary and the Swarthmore Democrats implemented to register voters was excellent. NextGen also worked on voter registration, which was great because it helped us register as many people as possible,” Uhlmann said. “We had tremendous success in getting students to fill out Voter Registration forms.”
Uhlmann did report problems with student voter registration following the submission of forms to the Delaware County Board of Elections.
“Unfortunately, many students were denied registration after their forms were submitted, which was frustrating for the students involved and for us, but Swatties for Hillary and Swarthmore Democrats did everything we could to make it possible for students to vote in Pennsylvania,” said Uhlmann.
Uhlmann related issues of voting status confirmation and the following moves by campus organizations to mitigate those problems.
The source of these registration issues has been debated among students following the reception of letters from the Board of Elections asking for students to re-register on days following the final registration deadline. Many recipients of those letters were students that lived in the western precinct and had mislabeled their address of residence, referring to their residence hall instead of the college’s address. Other recipients had a hyphenated last name. Aru Shiney-Ajay ’20, a fellow with NextGen Climate for Swarthmore, who ran Get out the vote operations and helped with voter registration on campus, experienced each side of the registration issue as both an organizer and a student that suffered difficulties in confirming her voter registration status.
Initially, Shiney-Ajay explained how she rushed to reach out to students before fall break when she recognized students would leave campus not having registered.
“When it was the day before the deadline, I was panicking! It was only after the voter registration deadline that I realized how this was a structural problem, rather than individual,” Shiney-Ajay said.
Then, she revealed the severity of the problem stating, “Around five days before the deadline, I realized almost 60 people that NextGen had registered had written down their address wrong without the dorm, and I was frantically trying to call them all and re-registering people as they were going on break … I was really upset about it, and we tried to contact the local office to fix registrations.”
Shiney-Ajay pointed out the problems that NextGen faced in the days leading up to registration deadline.
Furthermore, Shiney-Ajay had difficulties discovering her own voter registration status, which many people with hyphenated last names experienced.
“I had to look myself up under three different names,” Shiney-Ajay said. “I know others who had to do the same thing, who had their address wrong. Many of them took provisional ballots, but most didn’t know about a provisional ballot as a possibility.”
Shiney-Ajay experienced obstacles learning her own voting status, and wished others knew of provisional ballots; provisional ballots offer a way to record one’s vote if one’s voting status is in question, and they are an option at polling locations.
The student organizations registering voters were not separated from these confirmation issues, and they actively sought to fix them through student-outreach efforts. Uhlmann responded to issues of registration confirmation.
“I was concerned that students had difficulty confirming their registration and wanted to be sure we helped them in any way possible, whether that was by providing them with the Secretary of State’s office’s phone number or helping them fill out a new form. I cannot speak to what caused any of the issues though, as there were not any difficulties or problems on our end,” Uhlmann said.
Uhlmann went further to delineate her frustrations over the impediments students had to face and the options Swatties for Hillary and others listed to students that could not become registered in Delaware County.
“It was frustrating that students were told that their registration had not been accepted after the deadline had passed. We encouraged people who were not registered in Pennsylvania to call the Secretary of State’s office to get further information and see if it was possible to fix the errors on their forms and otherwise to vote in their home states, so that their voices still would be heard,” she said.
One development in this election cycle was the employment of an online resource to check one’s voter registration status in Delaware County. Warner explained differences in the process of checking one’s status from previous years.
“This year was about the same as before, but somewhat improved because the online registration was, overall, more effective,” Warner said. “On the other hand, the familiar precinct problem, forcing students to record different mailing address and address of residence, was no better in the new online system.”
Warner emphasized that the Delaware County Voter Registration Office in Media works hard to ensure students have the opportunity to vote.
After Election Day, results for Delaware County showed 59.1 percent of voters cast ballots for Clinton and 37.2 percent for Trump in the U.S. presidential election. Uhlmann discussed the success of the candidate she supported and tied the efforts on Swarthmore’s campus to the victory.
“Delaware County voted overwhelmingly for Secretary Clinton, with a 22 percent margin of victory, just as it did four years earlier for President Obama,” she said. “We were excited that we were able to help maintain such a large margin of victory in our county, which validated the efforts of so many students at Swarthmore who turned out to vote and spent so many hours volunteering for the campaign.”
Uhlmann said efforts by campus groups helped cement Democratic victories in Delaware County, demonstrating how important campus action is to electoral politics in the Borough and the county as a whole.
While Democrats won the county and have made consistent gains in presidential elections since 1992, the Democratic Party supports simplified registration processes. As such, many have proposed ways to simplify the process of voting for Swarthmore students. Shiney-Ajay pushed for reforms to the on-campus registration effort to be more organized and data-driven to maximize registration and turnout.
“[Registering was] very haphazard for NextGen, though Swatties for Hillary was slightly more organized,” she said. “Tabling was one of the few ways to register people, which makes it easy to be dismissed. It would have been easier to track who is and isn’t registered and approaching them individually, but that would take a different approach to data analysis.”
Shiney-Ajay targeted tabling as an impersonal but direct way of engaging potential voters. She suggested a shift to a more personalized mode of approaching students for registration. She continued with an analysis of NextGen’s efforts specifically, picking out the messaging as a mixed success.
“I think NextGen’s impersonal, millennial-targeted drive may have worked in some places, but Swarthmore required more face-to-face interaction, not through tabling but through conversations, to convey the urgency we were and are facing,” she said. “I think I would also not work for an organization that doesn’t give me the freedom to modify their plans again because I realize that these plans are based on national averages about what is effective, but often, that doesn’t apply in a small community.”
Warner promoted student action to change the lines of the precincts, so all college dorms and Strath Haven can vote in one location.
“I wish Swarthmore student voters would try to change the precinct structure, so that students would need only one address to successfully complete the voter registration form,” Warner said.
Uhlmann closed by imploring students to not only engage as voters, but to work beyond election years to promote an inclusive and supportive society.
“The closeness of the 2016 election demonstrates that every vote matters and that we need to participate in elections so that we have a say in the future of our country, as well as our state and local communities,” Uhlmann said. “While we lost the election, Swarthmore students must continue to advocate for an inclusive, tolerant society and support efforts to address climate change, income inequality, immigration reform, criminal justice reform, religious freedom, and so many issues that we care about.”
Uhlmann urged the campus to work continuously to act on justice issues even more vigorously with the incoming Trump administration and Congress.
Voter registration at Swarthmore is complicated by issues of our campus being split by voting precinct lines and other clerical issues despite minor accessibility improvements this past cycle, but efforts to increase student participation in local politics, with an eye towards to bureaucratic workings and justice issues, beyond of election years are supported by student leaders and administration officials.