Updated: May 5, 2020
As you walk onto the Mayor’s Reception Room, you are immediately surrounded by history. A statue honoring Amerigo Vespucci and the seal of Philadelphia greet you as you walk down the hallway. Entering the room, you immediately see paintings of past mayors. These images, to me, represent our progress through time. Since my group — Vote That Jawn — is here to celebrate a successful voting-participation drive, it demonstrates that much of this progress was marked by voting. In the U.S. we began with voting rights for only wealthy, white men. But in 1870, the 15th amendment was passed, technically giving black men the legal right to vote. White women gained the right to vote with the passing of the 19th amendment in 1920. Technically, black women could vote, but throughout the South, in opposition to the amendment, black people as a whole were barred from voting through unfair state practices such as literacy tests. It was not until 1965 that the Voting Rights Act passed, and every American adult became eligible to vote.
The road to increased voter participation was long. As Susan B. Anthony stated, “Somebody struggled for your right to vote. Use it.”
But the importance of voting goes even deeper than that. The efficacy of our elections depends on high participation. If most people aren’t voting, then our government cannot accurately reflect the ideals of the populace. One demographic that has been missing for the past few years is youth. The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) defines youth as people between the ages 18 to 29. According to CIRCLE, in 2008, 52% of youth voted, and then the numbers drop: to 49% in 2012, and 31% in 2014. In the Presidential election of 2016, exactly half of all youth voted. In comparison to older voting demographics, these statistics are dismal. The United States Election Project determined that in 2016 nearly 60% of 30- to 44-year-olds and nearly 70% of 45- to 59-year-olds, and 70% of of seniors older than 60 cast their ballots. However, the statistics for youth are improving. According to CIRCLE, in the 2018 midterm elections, an estimated 31% of youth voters aged 18 to 29 voted. This is a ten percent increase from the 2014 midterm elections, in which only 21% of youth voters participated. This increase was also seen in Philadelphia. There was a 136% increase in 18-year-old voter registration between the 2014 and 2018 midterm elections. And the improvement is not just in voting: a pre-election survey done by CIRCLE suggests that youth activism is on the rise. Polls done by CIRCLE also tell us that communicating to youth through a medium they all use — social media — led to higher voter participation. Ninety percent of youth use at least one social media site. Many of such sites increased their efforts to get accurate information out to youth about voting and the election. For example, Instagram ran a campaign to encourage voting, where they included ads on feeds and on their story. Snapchat did the same, and also included a map to help users get to polling stations. But even more powerful than top-down activism by national organizations is youth communicating to each other about voting. The goal of Philadelphia’s Vote that Jawn initiative was for youth to get other youth to vote, and to have young people explain to each other the importance of voting. At the Vote that Jawn post-election event, we were given a glimpse of what these youth-powered voting initiatives could do. The groups that attended filled the Mayor’s Reception’s room with energy. Jazz from high school students set the tone for the evening, and eager photographers captured the buzz of the room through their cameras. Temple Dems excitedly shared the reach of their initiative. They had not only gained votes within their own campus, but also taken their drive off campus, where they registered voters on subways and spoke to women at Planned Parenthood. PRowl, a student advertising “company” from Temple, discussed how they advertised for Vote that Jawn through social media. Their reach was seen on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Penn Leads the Vote (PLTV), run with the help of Netter Center, reported on activities to register students on that campus. According to Nikki Lin, co-director of PLTV, PLTV runs in four phases: “…voter registration… education… turnout, and…‘How do we improve civic engagement culture on campus?’” She describes the last phase as “more long term.”
Art Sanctuary’s interns, three teenagers, age 15 to 17, and a 12-year-old, had worked to acquired new voters. They merged the Vote that Jawn and Art Sanctuary logo designs to create a t-shirt they offered to new voters. Their campaign included going door to door, standing on street corners, and, finally, recruiting in their own families, leading to a total of six new voters. Even six new voters demonstrates the power of youth communicating to other youth.
It is no coincidence that there was both increase in communication about voting and an increase in voter turnout. After all, according to CIRCLE, 47% of youth (roughly 14 million people!) heard about the 2018 elections through Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. But it’s not just the reach that’s important. CIRCLE also states that this reach is amplified because users of social media have the ability to communicate with each other — and if voting is advertised heavily on social media, then users are forced to talk among themselves on- and off-line about voting. This means that social media has the power to change voting from just an obligation to a part of people’s social lives.
This communication could potentially lead to increases in voter participation in other demographics, too. During this midterm, there was also high minority turnout. According to data from Catalist, which provides data on voting trends, a higher percentage of black and Latino voters voted early in the 2018 midterms in comparison to figures from 2014.
The results from this election show that the Voters Rights Act of 1965 was just a start. To increase participation, we need more than the legal right to vote. The voting base must expand by people communicating to each other about the importance of voting. As seen in the data presented, it is clear that this communication was effective in this election. If we can continue this trend, we might see higher turnout in future elections. And perhaps, we may enter into a more politically aware future, and one that reflects more directly the people who live in this city. A future where, as I walk into the Mayor’s Reception Room, perhaps the next painting to be hung there will be that of a woman or a minority member, reflecting a future of higher voter participation.
Hannah Yusuf is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania with a major in Biological Basis of Behavior and a minor in Creative Writing. She loves to write–and she writes to tell stories that are generally untold. She wants her stories to reflect her heritage and hopes, more than anything, that readers experience a new perspective through her writing.