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[Guest Column] Your Most Important Assignment: Vote!

This semester has been daunting for many of us. Over the past couple of weeks, our students have noted how difficult it is to build and develop healthy habits for learning, eating and exercise, and social media.

There’s one habit that is often overlooked, but if you can develop it early, it will empower you for a lifetime: Voting. If you can vote, you should. And once you do it this election, you can say to people, “If I can vote during a pandemic, then you have no excuse!”

Americans value their “right to vote,” but voting in the U.S. is sometimes made a little difficult. We’re here to help!

First, a little motivation. We do not care who you vote for, but it is incredibly important for those who have the privilege of casting a vote to do so. We’ll remind you that there are plenty of people who are not able to vote due to their citizenship status, due to high barriers put between them and their ballot, or because they are disenfranchised due to their relationship with the American criminal justice system.

Second, voting matters. There is strong evidence that who votes (and thus, who does not) has important implications for public policy.  For instance, research finds that when poor people vote, more policies are more beneficial to the poor and that economic inequality is lower.  Voting by minorities increases the likelihood that policy will benefit minority groups.

Needless to say, politicians do not always pay close attention to the issues that are important to college students and recent graduates because they do not believe that those groups vote. If you want policymakers to focus on issues like the cost of attending college, student debt, the high cost of housing and rent, or, say, legalizing marijuana, then you have to vote.  It’s an important way for those without wealth and access to get their policy goals turned into reality. 

Third, Pennsylvania is a swing state. Your vote can be pivotal. (Do not let your Econ professors tell you any different!). In 2016 Donald Trump bested Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania by less than 1 percentage point and under 50,000 votes out of almost 6 million that were cast. It is certain to be very close this year again.

What do you need to do? For starters, you’ll need to register to vote at your current address. The last day to register to vote for the November election in Pennsylvania is Monday, October 19. Other states have different deadlines, and most are earlier. 

You can register to vote online. If you’ve moved since the last time you voted, you’ll need to update your information.

What next? You need to make a plan to vote. You can vote absentee, by mail, or in person. If you’re going to be away from the address where you are registered to vote, request an absentee ballot. Any qualified PA voter may request a mail-in or absentee ballot. You need to make these requests by 5 p.m. on October 27. But let’s be honest, if you wait until the deadline, considering the time that it takes for you to get your ballot then return it you are going to be cutting it very close. Just do it now.  Your ballot must be received by Election Day before 8 p.m. (not just placed in the mail but received!). You’ll get notifications by email about your ballot’s status if you send it in a timely manner.

We are in a pandemic. Some things can go wrong. Let’s say you procrastinate and you didn’t put your mail-in-ballot in the mail. No biggie! You can either deliver your ballot to your county election office yourself, or you can take your unmarked ballot to your polling site and vote then.

Also, consider the idea that you may be required to go home because people aren’t social distancing or wearing their masks. So, get a mail-in ballot now, and you can just drop it in the mail on your way back home.

There are only two things you shouldn’t do: 1. Vote zero times, or 2. Vote twice.

Young people are key players in American democracy. They played a key role in the Civil Rights Movement, in anti-war protests, in highlighting wealth inequality in the Occupy protests, in electing Obama, and in showing the world that many Americans have had enough with racial inequality.  You all can make history again. You have a lot on your plates right now, but casting your vote for November’s election is your most important assignment for the semester.

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About the Author

Candis Watts Smith & Christopher Witko

Candis Watts Smith is an associate professor of political science and African American Studies. Christopher Witko is the associate director of the School of Public Policy and a professor of public policy and political science.

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