Despite Swarthmore’s widely-held reputation as a college committed to democratic engagement, more than half of Swarthmore students did not exercise their civic right to vote in the 2016 and 2018 elections. Seeking to rectify this shortcoming and placing a high value on the importance of this year’s election, committed members of the campus community have worked tirelessly and collectively to overcome obstacles and increase student voter turnout.
According to a National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement study, approximately 44.7% of the student body voted in the 2016 presidential election. The voter turnout rate dipped by 5.5% in the 2018 midterm election.
Upon the release of these statistics in 2018, President Valerie Smith formed the college’s Get Out the Vote Steering Committee and charged them with the task of increasing voter participation. As articulated in its action plan, the committee’s goal is to reach a 55% student voting rate for the entire eligible student population, exceeding the 2016 rate of 45% and the national average of 50%. These strategies include educating students about voting, removing barriers to voting, and generating excitement around voting.
Frannie Richardson ’23, as one of the committee’s three student members, helps ground GOTV initiatives in the student experience. Richardson attributed the committee’s success to its high-level efforts to inform students about the voting process in emails and create motivational videos on why students and staff decide to vote. Personally, Richardson helped create informative, short animated videos that explain how to fill out and return a mailing ballot.
Recognizing the importance of civic engagement and her responsibility as a Democracy Fellow with the Campus Vote Project, Richardson sought to engage more directly with student voters and joined several other students in forming SwatVotes this spring.
“I hope to make a difference on the campus and get as many students to register as possible and get as many students out to the polls or voting by mail as possible,” Richardson said.
SwatVotes Director Sam Winickoff ’23 described SwatVotes as a nonpartisan student organization dedicated to increasing voter education, registration, and turnout among Swarthmore students. This fall, SwatVotes has engaged with students both virtually and in-person through tabling events outside Sharples. Among their network of 33 students, Richardson aids in running their social media outreach and Winickoff runs weekly office hours to answer individual student questions about the voting process.
Winickoff hopes these direct, personal engagement methods effectively reach out to more of the student body.
“Rather than taking things from the 2000-foot view of administration, we’re able to meet students where they are,” Winickoff said. “We understand the mindset because we’re all students ourselves.”
Richardson and Winickoff have also found success in their text banking script, which helps guide peers and friends through their respective voting plans. Winickoff surmised that Swarthmore’s low voter turnout can largely be attributed to confusion about voting procedures.
“I think it has less to do with the students being apathetic or not recognizing the importance of voting and more to do with the systems that are in place in Pennsylvania, and in Delaware County, and in Swarthmore, that make it difficult for students to register and cast their ballots,” Winickoff said. “Students have a right to vote where they go to college. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.”
Winickoff recounted many obstacles students face at Swarthmore, including the antiquated and oftentimes ineffective Pennsylvania online voter registration website. The site has a feature requiring students without a PA driver’s license to upload a signature, which only works a small percentage of the time according to Winickoff. Moreover, Swarthmore’s location is split between two voting precincts, which requires students to write their residence halls on their ballots for the ballots to be counted.
When educating students about voting, Richardson stresses the importance of voting in Pennsylvania, which could sway the tide of the national presidential election.
In the 2016 election, President Donald Trump won Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral college votes by a mere 0.7% or 44,292 popular votes.
“We’re definitely trying to make it known that Pennsylvania is really a swing state, and everyone’s vote counts,” Richardson said.
Voting has also become more complicated now that more than half of the students are living off campus. The Phoenix confirmed that several students registered in Pennsylvania but living in their respective home states did not receive their ballot in time to vote.
Megan Wu ’23, who is currently residing in Washington state, said that Delaware County canceled her ballot after it was mistakenly mailed to her Swarthmore address on October 3 and returned back to Delaware County by the USPS as undeliverable.
As soon as she heard Delaware County’s response on October 24 after a series of emails and calls, Wu requested another ballot immediately. Given the proximity to the election day, Wu will likely not be able to receive her ballot in time to have it postmarked by 8 p.m. on November 3, let alone have it arrive by the Delaware County election office by 5 p.m. on Friday, November 6.
“It’s too bad that this is happening to so many students in Pennsylvania, especially when there’s a huge chance that the state could be the deciding factor in the Electoral College,” Wu wrote to The Phoenix. “Pennsylvania is really different from Washington state in that there are so many more hoops we have to jump through just to be able to vote, and my experiences are probably reflective of a wider voting access problem in the US.”
As November 3 draws nearer, the SwatVotes team continues to engage more with students and answer questions about voting, such as how to sign, fill out, and address mail-in ballots so they are counted properly. Richardson said SwatVotes is currently encouraging students to return their mail-in ballots in-person at one of Delaware County’s two county election offices as soon as possible or to vote in person using provisional ballots on November 3. SwatVotes also recently released a walking map to lead students to their correct polling locations, which will be open from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
To facilitate democratic engagement for Swarthmore community members, President Smith declared November 3 to be a holiday and canceled classes.
Statistical analysis of voting trends at Swarthmore
In 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018, the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement has released reports of the voting statistics of voting-eligible students at Swarthmore. The statistics exclude students who are not eligible to vote, including U.S. citizens under eighteen, resident foreign nationals, non-resident foreign nationals, and undocumented students. NSLVE’s breakdowns of voting statistics at Swarthmore include general statistics as well as breakdowns by race/ethnicity, gender, and other pertinent groupings. NSLVE collected significantly more data in 2016 and 2018 than in earlier years, which could indicate a perceived increase in urgency to collect data about patterns among student voters.
Fig. 1: Voting percentages of Swarthmore students broken down by race
Voters, regardless of race and ethnicity, had the lowest rates of voting in the 2014 midterm elections. The 2014 dataset also has no data for the turnout of Black voters, though the reason for this omission is not explained. Asian voters consistently have the lowest voter turnout across elections, with only 25.8% of eligible Asian voters voting in 2018. White voters consistently have the highest voter turnout, with 42.3% of white voters voting in 2018.
Fig. 2: Voting percentages of Swarthmore students broken down by gender
Since 2012, female-identified voters at Swarthmore have always had significantly higher voter turnout than male-identified voters.
Fig. 3: General Voting Percentages of Swarthmore Students
While registration rates of Swarthmore students have always been high, ranging between 68.2% and 81.5% percent, voter turnout has always been significantly lower. The voting at Swarthmore was below the voting rate for all NSLVE institutions in every year except 2018, when 39.2% of eligible Swarthmore students voted, compared to a national 39.1%. Registration rates and voting rates had a steep decline in 2014 at Swarthmore and nationally, voter turnout in 2014 was the lowest since World War I.
Voting trends by major
In 2016 and 2018, NSLVE released detailed data about voter turnouts within individual fields of study, noting which three fields of study had the lowest voter turnout and which three had the highest voter turnout.
In 2016, NSLVE reported that the three fields of study with lowest voter turnout were computer and information sciences, liberal arts and sciences and humanities, and psychology. It is worth noting that NSLVE’s criteria for liberal arts is unclear, and the report indicates that 826 voting-eligible students at Swarthmore were liberal arts majors, compared to 69 computer science majors and 48 psychology majors.
The fields of study with the highest voter turnout were engineering and engineering studies, English language and literature, and foreign languages, literatures, and linguistics. The latter two fields of study only had 24 and 21 voting-eligible students, respectively, so NSLVE did not take program sizes or scopes into account. The 2016 report also did not have voter turnout data for voting-eligible students in the following fields of study: history, mathematics and statistics, interdisciplinary studies, and philosophy and religious studies.
In 2018, NSLVE reported that the fields of study with the lowest voter turnout were computer and information sciences, engineering and engineering technologies, and social sciences. Social sciences likely encompasses economics, sociology, and anthropology. Computer science is the only repeat field of study with notably low voter turnout, indicating that computer science majors consistently did not participate in electoral politics. Notably, breakdowns of Swarthmore graduates by major and gender indicate that computer science, engineering, and social sciences are all heavily male-dominated fields at Swarthmore. Male-identified Swarthmore students have always had lower voter turnout rates than female-identified students (see Fig.2).
The fields of study with the highest voter turnout in 2018 were foreign languages, literatures, and linguistics, philosophy and religious studies, and “unknown.” After “unknown,” the field of study with the fourth-highest voter turnout was biomedical and biological sciences. Swarthmore breakdown of graduates by major and gender indicate that biology at Swarthmore is heavily female-dominated, and that female-identified students make up slightly more than half of religion and philosophy majors. Female-identified students at Swarthmore have always had significantly higher voter turnout rates than male-identified students.
The 2018 report did not have voter turnout data for the following fields of study: Area, Ethnic, Cultural, Gender, and Group Studies; Education; English language and literature; history; Natural resources and conservation; Visual and performing arts. It is unclear why NSLVE has data for some of these fields of study in 2016 but has omitted them in 2018.
November 2, 9:19 p.m.: We removed an update from a former version of this article because it contained sensitive information that could cause harm to an interviewee.