Swarthmore Students Need More Time To Vote

Informative pamphlets for candidates sprawled across a desk. Photo courtesy of Lauren Mermelstein for The Phoenix

When I arrived on campus as a first-year student in 2021, I eagerly registered to vote during orientation week at a tabling booth right in front of Parrish, excited by the prospect of voting in a swing state where my vote might actually make an impact. 

I was soon shocked to learn that our voter turnout rates fall consistently five to ten percentage points below that of Haverford and Bryn Mawr. We are critically positioned as a leading academic institution in an important swing state, where students have an unequivocal opportunity to influence election outcomes annually. 

Despite a registration rate of 89% in the 2020 presidential elections, eligible Swarthmore students reached a turnout of only 76%. Back in 2016, with a registration rate of 81.5%, only 44.7% of eligible students voted. Why the enormous discrepancy between these two elections? In 2020, Swarthmore canceled classes on Election Day, giving students more time in the day to vote. Registration is not the main issue preventing students from engaging in elections. Students need more time to vote. 

Swarthmore students cited busy schedules as a large barrier that prohibited them from voting, as evidenced by a 2018 Get Out the Vote (GOTV) survey. It has become strikingly clear that current efforts do not adequately address the unique challenges we face as students in ways that might actually raise our turnout and allow us to fully participate in the democratic process. We need permanent class-free Election Days dedicated to allowing students to vote, as we did in 2020. 

At Swarthmore, the decision to create an institutional holiday on Election Day falls upon our faculty, who have the leverage to make this academic calendar decision during faculty meetings with a two-thirds vote. This past spring, SGO passed a resolution demonstrating large-scale student support for this request.

An Election Day dedicated to democratic engagement without classes will enable both faculty and students alike to actively engage in our democracy through both voting and other forms of participation, like working at the polls. Professors know that students juggle full course loads, extracurriculars, and jobs. It is not enough to ask professors to provide important election information; we know from student surveys and experience that students also need a realistic timeframe to actually cast a ballot. 

Pennsylvania is among the top four states where youth have the largest impact on state and national elections. In recent Pennsylvania elections, our votes have directly impacted our bodily autonomy and our right to vote by mail. Refusing to grant us an opportunity to engage in the decision-making process over our rights and the future of our country deems threats to our rights and liberties as frivolous, and undermines our capacity as critical thinkers to make decisions that impact us directly. 

Swarthmore College claims that its mission is a commitment to peace, equity, and social responsibility. A lack of democratic engagement undermines our ability to fulfill this mission. We are asking Swarthmore to fulfill its obligation, to allow students to use their voice and their political rights to create a student body more active in democracy, by honoring our critical role in the electorate.

Giving Swarthmore students more time to vote on Election Day will not only enhance and support a culture of democratic participation through voting, but will also allow students the time to engage democratically in other ways. By refusing student requests to support our ability to take part in our democracy, I am worried about the precedent we set as a leading academic institution. 

In 2020, Swarthmore canceled classes during a critical election season. Swarthmore students have navigated calendar adjustments throughout multiple years of the COVID-19 pandemic. I ask if faculty might consider the weight of what is at stake if students do not turn out to vote in the 2024 presidential election. Swarthmore students deserve more time to vote on Election Days, and it is imperative that faculty address this now. 

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