Tom Hanks brings voting hype to Pittsburgh


Actor Tom Hanks discusses the importance of voting in upcoming election at Tuesday evening’s “When We All Vote” event at Soldiers and Sailors. (Photo by Sarah Cutshall | Staff Photographer)

Isabelle Glatts and Sarah Cutshall

By Jon Moss, Hannah Schneider, and Sarah Shearer

Tom Hanks is in the neighborhood, and he wants you to register to vote.

The award-winning actor — along with other high-profile celebrities —  took the stage in front of more than 1,000 people at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall on Tuesday evening for the Pittsburgh leg of a political advocacy tour organized by the nonprofit “When We All Vote.” The organization campaigns to register voters, before the upcoming Oct. 9 deadline, for the upcoming midterm elections on Nov. 6.

“What is the most important election in the history of our country?” Hanks asked the crowd.

“The next one!” an audience member called out.

“You’re almost right,” Hanks said. “It’s all of them.”

He further stressed that elections are not only critical to the nation, but are something which all American citizens should participate in. Pitt, located within Pennsylvania’s newly drawn 18th Congressional district, is currently represented by Democrat Michael Doyle, who is running unopposed.

“It’s very possible to assume some decision will be made that you don’t really need to take part,” Hanks said. “If only to argue with a family member at Thanksgiving, you better vote … You get to do the dishes while everyone else talks about current events.”

Hanks wasn’t the only recognizable figure encouraging the public to vote. Kiya Tomlin, wife of Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, spoke early in the evening, urging students to actively participate in the political process. She said, ultimately, voters are the only Americans who hold the keys to power.

“It’s the people that show up to the polls that get to make our decisions for us. And we can’t allow ourselves to become content to merely watch, or even tune out the daily reality show of keeping up with Washington,” Tomlin said.

Tomlin’s advice rang true for Cassi Whitehead, a senior English writing major who came to the event with her parents, who were visiting from out of town. Whitehead said the event inspired her to be a more active advocate for voting among her friends — but that she was already well on her way to being active in November.

“[My family] was going to vote anyway, but it gives me strategies for the future,” Whitehead said. “I’m thinking of talking with my friends and telling them to make sure they’re registered.”

Students like Whitehead are considering the impact voting can have, especially the possible outcomes of voting in one state over another. Ryan Costenblader, a first-year computer science major, decided to register to vote in Pennsylvania for the midterms, as opposed to his native Connecticut.

“Connecticut always votes Democrat, and it just so happens I am a Democrat,” Costenblader said. “But I think it’s interesting to vote in a swing state.”

While some attendees were new to Pennsylvania voting, others were new to voting entirely. Approximately a dozen students from Woodland Hills High School attended the event in support of the Caileigh Lynn McDowell Foundation.

McDowell was a Woodland Hills student who passed away in April 2016, just days before she would become eligible to vote on her 18th birthday. She was a strong political activist and planned to attend law school. The foundation created in her name aims to transform political, social and economic systems into kinder and more equitable institutions.

Keaura King, student body president of Woodland Hills High School, said McDowell’s excitement to vote inspired her become more politically engaged.

“Because of her, we all really want to get more people engaged in voting, and make sure people understand how important it is,” King said. “It was very important to her, and she never got to take that step in her life.”

Ritika Bajpai, Pitt junior and Student Government Board community and government relations chair, also spoke at the event. She acknowledged the Woodland Hills High School students’ commitment to political engagement when reflecting on her own choice to vote.

“If I choose not to vote, then I’m giving up my chance to make a decision on my own about what I should believe should happen with our nation,” Bajpai said.

The event inspired students like Bajpai to cast ballots of their own this November, and reminded everyone in attendance that though Americans come from vastly different backgrounds, voting gives each person a voice and a place to stand on equal ground.

“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union … can respect our neighbors no matter what our differences are,” Hanks said. “We can learn on an equal playing field, we have the same opportunities no matter what our address is or town we live in.”

Contributed reporting by Emily Wolfe.