Summit aims to inspire more student voters


Romita Das | Staff Photographer

Assistant director of campus partnerships for the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge Ryan Drysdale gives remarks at the Western Pennsylvania Student Voting Summit in the William Pitt Union Saturday afternoon.

By Rebecca Johnson, Senior Staff Writer

This year, Pittsburgh is doing everything it can to make sure Panthers Roc the vote.

Organizers, including students and seasoned volunteers, met at the nonpartisan Western Pennsylvania Student Voting Summit in the William Pitt Union ballroom on Saturday. Their aim was to collaborate on registering the most voters before the April 13 deadline for the Pennsylvania Democratic primary on April 28.

Hosted jointly by the ALL In Campus Democracy Challenge, Campus Compact of New York and Pennsylvania, Campus Election Engagement Project and the Campus Vote Project, the event brought out about 60 people who represented 12 colleges and universities in Pennsylvania and New York.

To learn about increasing voter participation on their campuses, summit attendees went to various sessions that taught them the importance of reading Census Bureau data, as well as building a voter engagement plan specific to each college and communicating registration deadlines to college students.

Lalah Williams, a sophomore at Chatham University, was one of the student organizers at the event. Williams said she enjoyed the event and hopes to utilize some of the techniques she learned at Chatham.

“I really like the event so far, and just being involved with politics more this seems important,” Williams said. “This really matters because we noticed that turnout is different than the previous elections.”

At Pitt, Lauren Ban, a junior history and economics major and Campus Election Engagement Project fellow, is in charge of increasing civic participation in students. She led a session at the summit where attendees competed in a Jeopardy-style game to see who knew the most about current election laws and U.S. history.

Daniel Walsh | Senior Staff Graphic Artist

Ban said organizing events at the summit help her learn how to more effectively converse with students and convince them to register to vote. This includes STEM majors — who had the lowest voter turnout in both 2012 and 2016 across the country. According to the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement, 61% of Pitt students voted in 2016.

“It’s all about breaking it down to the basics,” Ban said. “We’re working on getting a series put together for engineers and computer science majors. I’m a history and econ major, so I couldn’t tell you a thing about engineering. But if I can get an engineer who’s civically engaged, it’s going to be much more impactful.”

Ban also said she tries to make her work nonpartisan by inviting groups from all across the political spectrum to her events.

“The key thing is if we end up inviting a political party or partnering with one political party we invite everyone,” Ban said. “We’re not just working with Pitt Dems. We’re working with Pitt Republicans, Pitt Progressives, Pitt Communists, if they want to jump in. Really anyone who wants to be involved is more than welcome to join the conversation.”

Even with rising voter turnout among college students across the country — voting rates rose from 19% in 2014 to 40% in 2018 — some political experts believe this election is particularly important for informing college students. Courtney Cochran, the national fellowship director and associate director of CEEP, said the summit was impactful because it allowed student organizers to share resources and helped inform them on new state election laws enacted under Act 77.

Gov. Tom Wolf passed and signed Act 77 on Oct. 31, 2019. It’s designed to improve voting systems and election codes in Pennsylvania by pushing back deadlines to apply for mail-in and absentee ballots, investing in new voting machines and extending registration deadlines for upcoming elections.

“It’s really great for students to have conversations about what’s happening on each other’s campuses, because it helps them come up with new ideas by sharing ideas and resources,” Cochran said. “Especially in Pennsylvania with an updated Act 77, spreading the word about new techniques that are coming out for the coming primary election.”

Tiffany Chang Lawson, the director of the bureau of campaign finance and civic engagement at the Pennsylvania Department of State did a teaching session about the new law. She said these reforms are historic.

“Act 77 wil make the most significant improvements to Pennsylvania’s election code in more than 80 years,” Lawson said. “They will make voting in Pennsylvania more convenient, accessible and secure than ever before.”

Some of the reforms include a change to mail-in ballots. Beginning with the April primary, voters can cast a mail-in ballot without providing a reason. Prior to the legislation, obtaining a mail-in ballot required a valid excuse like leaving town for work or observing a religious holiday. They can turn in an online application, mail it to their country election office or turn in the ballot at the county election office. Voters have to apply for the application by 5 p.m. on the Tuesday before the election, which is April 21 for the primary. The mail-in ballot must be returned by 8 p.m. on election day. Voters can also opt-in to be part of a permanent mail-in voter list, meaning they will automatically receive a mail-in ballot every year.

Act 77 also changed the amount of time Pennsylvanians have to register to vote before an election. The deadline is now 15 days before an election compared to the previous 30 days, so voters must register before April 13 to vote in the primary. Lawson said regardless of the deadline, when students register to vote, they can choose between their school or home address.

“The choice is yours. We applaud participation in elections no matter where it happens,” Lawson said.

Act 77 also allocated $90 million to replace outdated voting machines and reimburse counties in Pennsylvania for up to 60% of the costs of their new voting systems. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security reported in 2017 that Pennsylvania was among the 21 states that had their election computer systems scanned by Russian actors for vulnerabilities, but not hacked.

The new voting systems will have updated software and a paper record. The paper record was a necessity to count the totals in Northampton County, after computer errors showed Democrat Abe Kassis losing an election to Republican Victor Scomillio with 164 out of 55,000 possible votes, when he had actually won with 26,142 votes. Lawson said the new voting systems are to protect Pennsylvania elections.

“We do all this because we take our mission to protect the integrity of Pennsylvania’s elections very seriously,” Lawson said. “We want Pennsylvanians to feel absolutely certain that their vote matters.”

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