On Nov. 8, Americans will take to the polls to vote in the 2022 midterm election. In Pennsylvania, both the governor’s seat and one Senate seat are up for election. There are also a number of key issues at stake on the ballot involving abortion, voting rights, and the environment. To increase student turnout at Swarthmore in this important election, the college has invested in strategic efforts to get students registered and ready to vote through the Get Out The Vote (GOTV) committee.
The GOTV committee is composed of a group of students, faculty and staff committed to educating the Swarthmore community about their voting rights. It was started by President Valerie Smith in 2018 and is headed by Special Assistant for Presidential Initiatives Pam Shropshire, who serves as the GOTV Committee chair.
Shropshire came to the College in 2013 and was involved in the Aydelotte Foundation, a research center focusing on liberal arts education. She joined the President’s Office in 2020 and was appointed by President Smith to chair the GOTV Committee.
The Phoenix spoke with Shropshire about her interest in the GOTV committee, which stems from her desire to change the historic voter disenfranchisement in America that impacted her own family.
“I was really excited about the Get Out The Vote Committee because I’m very interested in civic engagement, gerrymandering, and redistricting. Folks in my family not too long ago were not allowed to vote or they were discouraged from voting,” Shropshire said. “So voting has always been something that’s really important to me.”
Shropshire is inspired by the founders who started the GOTV committee, including former Head of the GOTV Committee and Director of Advancement Communications Emily Weisgrau, who left the college in 2019, and hopes to build upon their legacies.
“Emily Weisgrau was the first person who convened the committee and was really important to the success. And so I’m really building on the work of other people who were involved with this before me,” she said.
Shropshire explained that she feels committed to GOTV because she wants to ensure that all students exercise their right to vote, a right that was historically restricted.
“Some people think things can’t go backwards. But I very much think they can. And so I am very invested in making sure that everyone participates in the process so they have a voice and are represented,” she said.
According to a report from the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE), Swarthmore’s overall voting rate had fallen below the national average in the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections. In 2016, the voting rate of all eligible students was 44.7% compared to a 50.4% voting rate of all NSLVE institutions.
These statistics are surprising to Shropshire, as she highlighted the discrepancy between the culture and history of social justice on Swarthmore’s campus and the low voter turnout rates among students.
“I’m really interested to know how our students think about voting and how they approach voting. The college very much has this history of students being very invested in social justice. But when you look at the rates for Swarthmore students, in terms of their registration and turnout, it’s not what you would have expected. There is this disconnect between activism and voting.”
Voter registration rates and voter turnout significantly increased in the 2020 election, with an 88.8% voter registration rate and a 75.9% voting rate, overtaking the national average of 66%.
In 2020, the GOTV issued a campus-wide survey to understand students’ attitudes toward voting. According to the GOTV 2022 Action Plan, the most frequent responses included confusion regarding the voter registration process, inadequate information on absentee and mail-in ballots, fear of COVID-19, and feeling that their vote would not matter. Shropshire hopes that GOTV can rectify this confusion and help provide student voters with a detailed explanation of the logistics of voting.
“A key goal of the GOTV committee is making sure students understand the mechanics of voting so those barriers are taken away. For example, the process of mail-in voting and how to fill out an application. The details can be very opaque,” said Shropshire
After Shropshire was appointed as chair of the committee in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Swarthmore, changing the way the committee had to engage in increasing voter turnout.
“Prior to my being on the committee, my understanding was [that] almost everything was in person. There was so much word of mouth. And so we had to kind of make a shift and think about what we could do virtually,” said Shropshire.
Now that the campus is fully back in person, the committee has worked with different organizations on campus in an effort to reach out to as many students as possible. For instance, they have started to do more tabling in order to get more people registered.
“What we have done this semester is we’re trying to go back to our roots and do a lot of tabling. We did voter registration for the first-year move-ins on August 23. We have also been out for the Garnet Day celebrations. One of our goals is just to increase the rates for registration and voter turnout,” Shropshire said.
Shropshire also discussed how another priority of the GOTV committee is to engage underrepresented and disenfranchised voters.
“A secondary goal is to really reach out to people who have been traditionally underrepresented in terms of voting, and that’s often people of color. We are reaching out to the Intercultural Center, the Black Cultural Center, the Women’s Resource Center, and we had a pop-in with First-Generation Low-Income,” Shropshire said.
The GOTV committee is also interested in the way the pandemic affected student voting patterns, specifically how mail-in voting will affect the voter turnout in Swarthmore.
“Before COVID, around two-thirds, if not three-quarters of our students voted in person. And we saw that flip with COVID. And one of the things that we’re waiting to see is how, now that students have had experience with mail-in-voting … will the behavior shift [back to pre-COVID in-person voting]?”
Although mail-in voting allows for greater flexibility for students in terms of voting, Shropshire highlighted how increased mail-in voting might impact the ability of the committee to carry out its Swarthmore-specific voting data, as it will take longer to gather figures from students if there are larger amounts of students who vote by mail versus in person.
“One of the advantages for us is if students vote in person and vote here, we can see how many students are coming out on election day. So we can maybe send more emails or do other actions to nudge that along,” Shropshire said. “It’s much more challenging for us if students are voting by mail, whether they’re voting by mail in Pennsylvania or elsewhere, because we don’t know at the moment. So I think there’s going to be a bit of a lag in between the election and the data we will find out.”
Regardless of whether students will be voting in person or by mail, Shropshire believes in the power younger voters have on the direction of the country.
“According to Rock the Vote, in 2024 millennials and Gen Z will comprise 44% of American voters. And according to the New American Majority, young people, people of color, and unmarried women — 150 million people — represent 64% of the people who can vote in America,” Shropshire said. “So if people do turn out, I think they can make an impact. I really do.”