By Skye Meredith Lucas
“Which one is the orange guy?”
I tried not to laugh behind my mask.
“The President?” I asked.
“He’s Republican,” I said.
“Can you take a look?” He tilted the tablet screen at me, “It’s asking me to pick one,” he said, “but I don’t know which one to choose.” The screen read, "Political Party: To vote in a primary, you must register with either the Democratic or Republican party."
Below there were five boxes to choose from.
- Green Party
“Hmm..” I looked at him and darted my eyes back to the screen. I was stalling… thinking of a non-partisan response. It was a sunny afternoon in mid-September and I was registering new voters in the Shoprite parking lot on Passyunk and Oregon Avenue.
I was there because I was a student in Ms. Lorene Cary’s class, Writing and Politics, and as part of the curriculum, I was working with classmates to engage Philadelphia youth in the upcoming 2020 election through Vote That Jawn, a non-partisan, youth engaging, voter registration organization founded by Ms. Cary herself. Registering new voters would teach me a valuable lesson about civic engagement, one that I would have never learned in a classroom. I’ve known now for a while that one of the fundamental aspects of participating in a democracy is voting, but here’s the catch: Before you vote, you have to register. And as elementary as that seems, registration is a process seriously overlooked by would-be voters.
The computer tablets being used at our drives allowed us to register voters on the spot. If a person wanted to register, we would simply hand them the tablet, or help them fill out the form that asked for the person’s address, driver’s license or social security number and/or party affiliation.
Even though the young man standing in front of me didn’t know the difference between Democrats and Republicans, he knew he didn’t want to be part of “the orange guy’s” party.
That young man was the first voter I ever registered, and I’ll remember the uncertainty we both faced in that moment, together. From then on I was determined to swallow my unreasonable fear of navigating the process.
“Well… let’s see,” I drew my head a little closer to the screen (more stalling). “If you want to vote in the primaries, which are like the elections that determine who’s going to be on the ticket in the general election, the one that’s coming up in November” we were looking, nodding at each other aimlessly, “then you need to register as either Democrat or Republican.” I pointed at the top two empty check boxes.
We stood there nodding and smiling, telepathically double checking that we were understanding one another.
“Right,” he tapped the tablet, “Then I’m not registering as that.” He laughed and then scrolled to the bottom. I never saw which party’s box he clicked, but it was ultimately none of my business. I asked him if he wanted a mail-in ballot form, but he wanted to “be there” and vote in person. “Think I’m good to go,” he passed me the tablet and was now registered!
Before he walked into the shop, he turned back and called out, “I’ll get an email confirming my registration, and then I’m supposed to check online where I can vote?”
“YEP!” I shouted back and he was gone.
About ten minutes later two young men were strolling past our signs when one of the Vote That Jawn hats caught their eye. “I like that,” one said to the other, “Vote That Jawn.”
“We’re giving them away to people who are registered,” explained Ms. Angie, a My School Votes Pennsylvania Regional organizer.
She asked, “Are you young men registered?”
The young men just stood there, as though confused or taken aback by the question.
“To vote?” She piped in.
“Oh,” they shrugged their shoulders. The taller one replied, “Nope.”
She continued, “Are you 18?”
“I’m 19,” the taller one said and looked at his friend, unsure where this questioning was going. “I’m 18,” said the other one.
“GREAT!” Ms. Angie passed Sheyla and me the registration tablets, “Then you can vote! Skye and Sheyla can register the two of you right here.”
“Ugh, wait! We gotta check in real quick with our manager, and then we’ll be back… And cop one of those fly caps!”
These young men must have been coworkers at Shoprite. They were wearing matching khakis and red polo shirts, but they joked around like they were friends. The doors of the store entrance slid closed behind them.
Watching Ms. Angie drill these young men, I was a little shocked. Why did asking these young men if they were registered to vote throw them off-guard? It took me a while to process that initial shock. Writing this and thinking back to that Saturday, I realize how unproductive it is to assume that everyone knows how to navigate the voting process. I also now understand why it was so important to Ms. Cary that we were there in the parking lot helping people participate in the process.
As the two young men looked for their manager, I turned to Sheyla, “Do you hand the tablet to them or do we fill it out for them?” I asked.
Sheyla was a Shoprite Saturday organizing regular, like Ms. Angie, and a 17-year-old high school rep for When We All Vote, the Philly youth group. She was also my classmate in Professor Cary’s class.
Nonchalantly Sheyla replied, “I usually hand them the tablet and stand by, answering any questions… but if they have any problems with the form, then I’ll help them out.” Then the young men returned and Sheyla walked away to the other side of the booth. Together we waved them down.
Out of the way of the shoppers, we passed each young man a tablet. As they were typing their personal info, we stood next to them. I couldn’t stop bouncing. I was nervous and waiting for a question that I would not know the answer to.
My guy turned to me, “It’s not letting me go to the next form,” and pointed to the red star at the top of the screen.
I scrolled through the form and spotted the problem: the prefix box at the top of the form was blank. I asked him, “You go by Mr., I’m assuming?”
“Oh— got it.” He saw the MR. and clicked it.
In under five or so minutes, these young men turned into registered voters. I didn’t know what would happen on election day, or who they would vote for, but I knew—and they knew—that they were now able to vote in future elections to come, and that in and of itself is some kind of power.
Feeling empowered myself, I kept registering.
“Good afternoon sir, registered to vote?” An old man was approaching the entrance with a cane in his shopping cart. The rumbling wheels on the cart stopped. “You know…” he tilted his head down at me, “you just reminded me,” and snapped his fingers, “I got to register.”
He parked his cart and I handed him the tablet. Another voter, registered.
The ability to participate in the democratic process—and by extension, important issues in our lives—begins with registering to vote. The point of entry into the process is often taken for granted and overlooked. To cast a ballot and vote rests solely on being among those allowed to write their name on the ballot. Even though voting is a constitutional right, the civic system’s accessibility can fall short, even in PA.
Registration is an option when one gets their license because of the Voter Registration Act, more commonly referred to as the Motor Voter Act. But not every eligible citizen drives or has a driver's license. Individuals with a PennDOT number from either a PA driver’s license or a PennDOT ID card can apply online, but this often neglects the hardest-to-register groups—poor people, rural populations or people of color. That’s why third-party voter registration is a critical path to engaging citizens of color in the democratic process. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, racial and ethnic minorities are twice as likely to register through a voter registration drive as are white: Where only 7.4 percent of white voters will rely on these registration efforts, 12.7 percent of blacks and 12.9 percent of Hispanics used them back in 2004. In a city where 43.6% of its citizens are black and 15.2% are Hispanic, the point of entry for Philadelphians rests heavily on the ability to sign up and be counted as voters. Out of the five voters I registered at the ShopRite that Saturday afternoon, all five were black.
“Miss?” A lady was pushing the shopping cart with her elbows. I couldn’t see her face because it was blocked by her phone. Her bright blue glasses were peeking out from the sides.
I asked again, “Ma’am are you registered to vote?”
The phone came down. “What was that?” Bright blue glasses and a pair of massive eyes were covering half of her face. She was leaning almost a little too COVID-close. Her blue earrings dangled in my face.
“Are you registered to vote?” I asked. “I can help you reg-“
“OH!” She smacked her thigh. “HOOK ME UP!” I leaned back, frightened by the enthusiasm! When I blinked, Ms. Carry had already jumped to my side, making sure everything was cool.
“Can we do this now?” She asked and swerved the shopping cart into a parking spot.
Ms. Cary and I blurted something like “Yes we can!” at the same time, like we were alarmed by the sight of how much this person wanted to register.
Out of the three drives I attended from September until late October, I probably registered close to 13 voters in Philadelphia county. Some were young, like the young anti-”orange” man I registered that Saturday afternoon. Surprisingly, many were adults. Out of the 13 new voters, 11 were black. Two were unsure as to what party each presidential candidate was representing. The dangerous assumption that most people know how to participate in the electoral process needs to be reckoned with.
What about all the political ads that played on the radio during my Lyft rides to and from different voter drives? Philly’s 98.9 hip hop station played a political campaign ad every other song. I knew who I was voting for, but as I listened to them, I would wonder to myself, who else was listening? For real, who will listen if they aren’t registered? Shouldn’t the ads ask, “Registered to vote?” and make sure of that first? Seriously!
The ability of Philadelphians to elect legislators who will put their needs first rests on their ability to effectively sign up, be processed, and stay on the electoral roll. It became obvious to me that many of these citizens wanted to vote… they just didn’t know how they could do that. They were missing the first and most fundamental step: registering. And that’s why Sheyla, Ms. Angie, and Ms. Cary and I spent our Saturday afternoon at ShopRite hosting a Vote That Jawn drive.
To quote Stacey Abrams, the Georgia politician, from her book Our Time Is Now:
“Like a golden ticket, the act of voter registration opens the process of democracy, and without it, citizens are just aspirants at the gate.”
So before we start telling people who to vote for, we have to make sure that our fellow Jawns are registered to vote and that future Jawns will know how to register to vote.
On December 8th, the Supreme Court denied Donald Trump’s request to undo the Biden win in Pennsylvania. That Tuesday night, I thought about the guy who didn’t want to vote for “the orange guy” and thought he must’ve voted that Jawn.
Skye Lucas is a New Yorker but votes in PA—she’s 21 and knows that her vote matters more there! A senior at UPenn, she likes dancing, appreciates anime, and enjoys organizing with classmates over important issues—over zoom and in public spaces.