Philly Youth Votes brings young voter registration statewide

by Walt Maguire
Posted 2/18/21

Philly Youth Vote has been around since 2016, when Thomas Quinn, a Mt. Airy resident and social studies teacher at Central High School, joined with others in the Caucus of Working Educators to …

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Philly Youth Votes brings young voter registration statewide

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Philly Youth Vote has been around since 2016, when Thomas Quinn, a Mt. Airy resident and social studies teacher at Central High School, joined with others in the Caucus of Working Educators to promote voter registration among high school and college students. The impact was seen in the 2018 mid-term election and even more last November. Quinn emphasizes the work didn’t stop last fall.

“There is an election in 2021,” Quinn reminds students. “That's one of the things we're trying to educate young voters about. Pennsylvania has primary and general elections in odd years–most other states do not. There's a Pennsylvania Primary Election on May 18th and we're voting for state appellate judges, as well as local municipal judges. Many counties, including Philly, are also voting for row offices, like DA and City Controller.”

Now, Philly Youth Vote, “a nonpartisan collaboration of educators and community organizers dedicated to getting every 18-year-old in Philadelphia to the polls on Election Day,” is rolling out its voter registration model statewide in a new program called PA Youth Vote. “We are currently working to create a statewide membership of young people, educators, and organizations,” said Quinn.  “We are also seeking funds to build our own sustainable organization so that we can continue to engage youth in every midterm and off-year election when critical state and local races are decided.”

PA Youth Vote had its first meeting in late January, a Zoom call to hear about appellate court primaries from Kabida Kenner, of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. A few dozen student leaders from high schools around the state sat in. Gayatri Venkatesan, a 10th grader at Bayard Rustin High School, got involved when her friend Sehaj Kaur, frustrated with her own lack of information on election issues, started a voter registration team called When West Chester votes in their school district.

“Last year was definitely a turning point for me in that I began to pay attention to what was happening in the world because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, the presidential election, and such major events,” Venkatesan said.

Sehaj Kaur had started their group with her classmate Anika Chaudry.

“This school club was a branch off of the nonpartisan ‘When We All Vote’ organization started by Michelle Obama,” Chaudry said. “To my surprise, this club took off in my school, attracting over 20 people in the first two weeks to join the club and help educate others on voting.  Through When West Chester Votes, I got to meet other branches like ours in various Pennsylvania counties working from the same When We All Vote organization. It was here that we joined forces from across counties to form the PA Youth Votes team.”

Students drive the topics and run social media campaigns to reach out to other students. A show on G-town Radio and a podcast are launching soon, run by students.

Angie Hinton, the program director of PA Youth Vote, had worked with several registration groups outside Philadelphia concerned with inequity she witnessed in suburban education. Seeing the impact of separate, smaller groups, especially Philly Youth Vote, in 2020 she partnered with the Committee of Seventy and reached out to teachers across the state she had worked with on previous campaigns.

“Working with students in 2020 was the bright light for all of us,” she said. She wants to lower the age and race gap. “There’s a pattern of older people who don’t want to pass the baton.”

“Another really exciting part of this election is that 18-year-olds can run for office,” Quinn pointed out. “They can win seats on the election board at their polling place, as Judge of Elections and Inspectors of Elections. Many teens already have experience as poll workers and would be very qualified for these positions. Otherwise they are often left empty and get filled on the day of the election.”

According to the office of Seth Blustein, Chief Deputy Commissioner and Chief Integrity Officer for Philadelphia, in the November 2020 election the turnout in Philadelphia remained at 2016 levels—66%—but the 18-year-old vote increased by 5%. There was also a smaller gap between the 18-year-olds who registered and those who voted: 74%, up from 69% in 2016.

Quinn and Hinton are quick to point out that interest was not entirely due to their organizations — there were certainly issues driving turnout in 2018 and 2020 — but the student efforts and cooperation from the Philadelphia School district made it easier for determined students to register and learn about ballot questions and down-ballot candidates.

Part of Quinn’s agenda for next Fall is to get voter registration added to the public high school social studies curriculum. This has been proposed to the Philadelphia School Board before, but the pandemic in this election cycle added urgency to the idea, since in-person registration was almost impossible. “We older people take it for granted, but young folks that don't register and vote as teens, often don't register until they are in their 30s. Pew Research found that only 6% of students get registered at school. That's a huge problem, so we're proposing policy solutions at the school district level.”  The Model SDP Voter Registration Policy would provide registration access, though not require registration. The proposal also recommends recognition for any school or student in the Commonwealth that participates in registering at least 65% of eligible voters.

Sehaj Kaur is looking forward to voting.  

“I feel there are many issues to fight for over the next few election cycles,” she said. “However, now with a new president with a new agenda from the last, it seems many are finally being acknowledged.”

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