Given the unprecedented momentum of the upcoming presidential election, students at the college seem to be more inclined than ever to participate in politically-affiliated activities, both in-person and at home. These activities range from personal activism to far-reaching voting initiatives, as well as participation in specific partisan and ideological groups. Political engagement has been particularly diverse, with students involved in voting encouragement, mutual aid efforts, strikes and protests throughout the summer, and educational initiatives centered on combating the issues plaguing the country.
Notably, students on campus have focused on voting as a way to engage politically, as a campus organization known as Swarthmore Students for Biden has gained significant traction in garnering student votes for the Democratic presidential nominee.
Sam Marks ’22, one of the leaders of Swarthmore Students for Biden as well as the Swarthmore Conservative Society, expressed his enthusiasm in building off of SwatVotes voter registration efforts.
“That’s been [Swarthmore Students for Biden’s] primary effort, just making sure people are registered, making sure they have the information they need, and knowing what they need to know, especially with some of the more complex aspects of the voting law,” Marks said.
Many students encounter complications in registering to vote at college in a different state, as well as with tribulations of voting by mail, such as Pennsylvania’s stringent rejection of “naked ballots,” which are ballots that arrive without secrecy envelopes.
To help generate excitement for the Biden campaign, Swarthmore Students for Biden has orchestrated debate watch parties, phonebanked extensively, and held conversations with the local campaign representative.
Swarthmore Students for Biden has specifically extended their work to on-campus students by making direct, meaningful connections with student voters, which included Molly O’Sullivan ’24.
“I received help in obtaining my mail-in ballot from the Students for Biden committee, as well as heard from several representatives in my class who encouraged me to vote,” O’Sullivan said. “I would say that the campus at Swarthmore has been conducive to voting in general. 100% of my softball team was registered to vote and encouraged to spread the word to do so on campus.”
Adithi Attada ’24, who has done extensive outreach and phone-banking for the Biden campaign, spoke on the importance of voting in the upcoming election.
“This election is particularly important. With the pandemic and everything that is happening with police brutality, it is really important that people in privilege who are able to vote recognize that even if their lives are not going to be impacted by this election, other people’s lives might be. They should make that choice if not for themselves, then for other people.”
Though Swarthmore has a track record that indicates a surprisingly low voter turnout, online polling results of about 120 students collected via a Google form posted to the 2020-2021 Facebook Group on October 21 indicate that the majority of student respondents intend on voting for Biden in the upcoming election. In contrast, only three out of 123 indicated an intention to vote for Trump. Particularly notable is the political diversity of individuals who plan to support Biden despite historical inclinations otherwise. Though only 22% of respondents indicated their support for Joe Biden in the primary elections, 90% marked their intentions to vote for him in the general election.
Many students indicated their plan to vote for Biden simply in opposition to the incumbent President Donald Trump, with displayed preference for the policies of Joe Biden. The survey indicated that 91% of poll-respondents prioritized climate-centric policy, 78.7% indicated a priority for healthcare, and 73.8% said that their vote was largely influenced by a strive for greater ethnic and racial equality.
Marks spoke on the appeal of Biden throughout the election season, especially with respect to his healthcare policies.
“I’m a big Biden fan. I was a big Biden fan in the primaries as well,” Marks said. “I’m not pre-med, but a lot of my family, friends or neighbors have dealt with medicine or been involved with it. And I feel that Biden’s health care plan is probably the best. Where it’s not Medicare for All, but you put people who aren’t insured on Medicare, is probably the best option that we have available to us at this given moment.”
Likewise, Marks indicated his belief that Biden would deal with the COVID-19 pandemic with increased adequacy and coherence.
Many students who plan to support Biden indicated their diverse historical political leanings, which did not tend to align with moderate Democrats. From a wide array of backgrounds — ranging from leftist to moderate to conservative — many Swarthmore students appear to be reluctantly prepared to vote for Joe Biden despite many qualms with his platform, thus forming an ‘unlikely’ support base.
Marks reflected on the views of conservative-leaning students at the college.
“As far as real Trump supporters in the [Swarthmore] Conservative Society, there are none. There’s no one who’s even concerned with voting for Trump. The only division [in the conservative society] right now is if you’re going to vote for Biden, or if you’re going to not vote, or if you’re going to either leave the ballot blank or write in someone,” he said.
In line with the broader lack of identification with the Democratic party indicated in the survey, respondents displayed that their support correlated more with opposition to Trump’s policies, rather than particular advocacy for Biden.
“At the end of the day, Biden is really our only option if we want to beat Trump. I don’t love him, but he is what we have for now,” Freddie Lin ’24 stated.
O’Sullivan also shared that she considered herself in the ‘settle for Biden’ camp.
“I have recently aligned more with the Green Party. Although he was not my first choice, I voted for Joe Biden in this upcoming election,” O’Sullivan stated.
Zack Monterosso ’24 spoke to his hesitation in conforming to some of Biden’s values, evidenced by his political track record.
“Biden’s 1994 crime bill contributed terribly to the crisis of mass incarceration in the country,” he said. “His support of fracking is dangerous. He proves time and time again that he is not going to be a driver of real, systematic change. He is a return to ‘normalcy,’ which might be better than Trump, but it is not an ultimate solution to people suffering under the [electoral] establishment in this country. I am voting for him, but it is so important to recognize the many ways that he fails the people of our country.”
Despite her lackluster support for Biden as a candidate, Attada attached a moral weight of voting for him.
“I think there is a specific right [side] and wrong [side]. The right [side] happens to be aligned with some liberal views, which is why I am working on the Biden campaign,” Attada said. “I think Trump is very morally reprehensible. I wouldn’t want him to be in office. It is not that I particularly support Biden, but I’d much rather have a Biden presidency than a Trump presidency.”
Though efforts on campus do show that voting is a priority for many, others tend to place increased value on other viable forms of political action.
“I feel that we, as individuals, have more control over things in our immediate environment, as opposed to things that are determined by voting, which are influenced by people who have power over society and can change rules to push the agenda that they want … I think voting is an exercise of futility, at least because I am not going to go into politics or spend energy trying to change other people’s politics,” Jonathan Odim ’23 stated with respect to his qualms with the electoral system.
Monterosso agreed that voting alone is insufficient for those able to supplement that action otherwise, as he mentioned the variety of ways he worked to meaningfully engage in politics otherwise, including participation in mutual aid, self-education, strikes, and protests.
“All of these actions are ways to contribute politically that are more accessible and can complement voting.”
Attada explained the relative value of voting and other forms of political action.
“I think voting certainly matters, but I don’t think voting is the most important representative of social change,” she said. “For example, the amount of voter suppression that happens in this country is completely rampant … So, to say that your vote reflects social change is not accurate. I think other things like protesting, which almost anybody can do on their own, or starting clubs or non-profit organizations … for social change are probably more effective than voting.”
Nonetheless, Monterosso and Attada maintained their support for Biden in order to prevent a victory by Donald Trump.
“At the end of the day, Biden is our only option. But that is not to say that he is our best option,” said Monterosso. “In this situation, we do have to compromise, but it is not representative of too much real, constructive change to have another president who continues to oppress marginalized people. The fact that we have to choose between the lesser of two evils represents a deep issue with our system.”
Against a variety of odds, the political climate at Swarthmore seems to be encapsulated in wide-ranging levels of support for Biden. Though political opinions remain diverse, students from a host of backgrounds are addressing their reputation as members of a politically aware student body by garnering efforts to vote and engage in other meaningful praxis as the election approaches.
The Phoenix recognizes the limitations of reporting methods for this piece; gauging the political climate of a student body in the current moment of distanced connection and heightened political tension is difficult. While we sent our poll out several times in our newsletter and posted it in the 2020-2021 Facebook group, we received only 122 respondents, a little less than 10% of the student body. We acknowledge that our dataset has a sampling bias because our survey only reached students in the Facebook group and subscribers to our newsletter, as well as a participation bias because only students who are vocal about their political views would have been incentivized to participate.
Cami Brix contributed reporting