From the classroom to the voting booths

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Conventional wisdom says that young people are less interested in showing up to vote than older generations.
If there’s any truth to that, Penn students aren’t buying it.

In 2008, Penn undergraduates achieved more than an 89 percent turnout at the polls. This year, students in the Penn Leads the Vote (PLTV) network have already registered more than 840 students on campus, and other groups have registered 400 to 500 more.

The Penn Leads the Vote effort started in the classroom. Specifically, it was a 2004 book released by the Brookings Institution, titled “Get Out the Vote,” that caught the eye of John DiIulio, the Frederic Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion, and Civil Society, and professor of political science. This book, he explains, examined all of the evidence about low voter turnout and assessed which get-out-the-vote efforts were most effective. The conclusion was that door-to-door canvassing had the biggest impact on voter turnout.

DiIulio wondered if the theory would hold true on Penn’s campus, so he built that into his fall 2004 “Introduction to American Politics” class, a general course that covers the philosophical foundations of the United States, the Constitution and campaign and political participation. Students in the class were eligible to be trained as poll watchers and poll workers, and they worked as a student committee to do an on-campus registration drive.

“We were not going to try to do this as a piece of research,” says DiIulio, also the director of Penn’s Robert A. Fox Leadership Program and Program for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society. “This was a piece of student service-learning and civic action.”

That first year, in 2004, PLTV was powered by 20 to 30 students who registered several hundred of their Penn peers. What the students noticed, says DiIulio, was that many young people on campus hadn’t voted in 2000 not because they weren’t interested, but because they didn’t know where to go to cast their ballots. Following that, students read up on election law and by 2006, had successfully arranged for voting machines on campus to be moved to sites that are more easily accessible to Penn students.

In 2008, DiIulio says 60 students in his political science class worked on the PLTV effort. This year, 196 students applied and 75 were accepted by lottery to register students and work and watch the polls on Nov. 2.

Jared Fries, a College senior and executive co-director of PLTV, says the group wants students of all political stripes to show up at the polls. “It matters that you have an opinion and we want to make sure that your opinion is heard,” he says.

On Election Day, PLTV will hold a march down Locust Walk, leading to a rally on College Green with Penn President Amy Gutmann. Fries says PLTV hopes turnout on Election Day will reach at least 1,522 voters, which would top the voter turnout number from 2006. “I think Penn students as a whole think that it’s their civic duty to vote, even if it’s not a national election,” he notes.

While PLTV may have started as part of DiIulio’s course, it now operates independently, and includes Fox Leadership Program interns who work during the summer to lay the groundwork for the registration and get-out-the-vote work in the fall.

DiIulio says the success of the PLTV effort may be attributed to what he calls the Penn students who are “smart with heart.”

“The millennial generation is truly the next greatest generation,” he says. “They care a lot about the common good. They care a lot about the common interest.”

Originally published on October 28, 2010