“...and make sure to vote!”

How many times have we seen or heard someone tack that on to the end of whatever they were saying or writing to a group of people, if we haven’t done that ourselves? Not to mention all the robo–texts asking if we’ve voted yet, and all the emails informing us of how to register and vote. 

The pandemic complicated the process of voting and increased concerns about voter suppression, along with exacerbating the polarization of the election. And an underlying sentiment to some of the messages of voter encouragement this year was that the people needed to vote—to prevent the reelection of Donald Trump, by voting for Joe Biden. Although we emphasize the importance of voting to make our voices heard, there are limits to the extent people can express what they want for their communities through voting, whether they face obstacles to casting their ballot, are dissatisfied with the candidate options, or demand change that can’t be made within the electoral system. 

As a Democrats Overseas officer at the University of Edinburgh, fourth–year student Alexander Basescu has been helping the approximately 3,000 U.S. citizens at his school register to vote and navigate the logistical challenges of voting from abroad and during a pandemic, including the shortened timeline to account for shipping, finding a printer, and decrypting the ballot. Due to the inaccessibility of the encrypted ballots, he and other students ended up submitting Federal Write–in Absentee Ballots. States vary on whether they accept votes for local offices with this Official Backup Ballot. While he was disappointed to not be able to vote in the local elections, he says that “at the end of the day, it was about getting Joe Biden elected for a lot of people, which is a goal that mattered a lot more than risking your ballot not being counted at all.” 

Alexander says that he's encouraged by student efforts to increase voter turnout, including the voter outreach of Penn Democrats, a group he was involved in while an exchange student at Penn last year, and the petition co–authored by Emma Harris (C’21) and Alisa Wadsworth (C’21) demanding that Penn give its workers paid time off on voting day. He says this voter engagement helps “overcome the major barriers [to voting] that we’re currently experiencing, and it shines more light on those barriers,” which he hopes will motivate people to “further work with their elected representatives to fix those systems to make voting easier for the future.” 

Alexander, who previously was registered to vote in California, was excited to be a swing state voter at his address on Penn’s campus. Michelle Fang (C’23), however, lost her opportunity to register to vote in a swing state when Penn closed its campus for the semester. “I realized that by the time the next [presidential election] rolls around, I will have graduated from Penn, and so I might never have the opportunity to vote in a swing state ever again and that’s the only place where I feel like my vote would actually be doing something,” she says. Instead of the winner–take–all set–up used in many states, she wants the electoral college votes in each state to be reflective of the popular vote or to be replaced with a popular vote. 

Despite the disillusion she says people may feel about the impact of their votes, Michelle maintains it's important for everyone to vote. “I voted in California and even though I feel like voting for Biden didn’t do anything, I made sure to vote on all the local issues,” she says.

While Michelle says that, due to the two–party system and electoral college, “most people can’t find a candidate that they actually identify with,” herself included, Kristen Ukeomah (C’21) points out that a lot of people have been able to vote for their preferred candidate. “There was a very intentional voting for Trump by millions of people both in 2016 and 2020,” she says. Even though Trump ultimately lost the election, the race was remarkably close.

“Trump [did] extraordinarily well for someone who’s done so poorly in these four years," Kristen says. She believes that if people don’t like how Trump has done so well in the elections, they need to hold accountable those upholding white supremacist systems as well as recognize the need to invest in public education as people may not be adequately equipped to question the ideas—such as the racist or misogynistic beliefs propelled by Trump—that they may have grown up with. 

For those who had supported Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, the two–party system eliminated the candidate they wanted. “Having Joe Biden as the Democratic nominee represents something starkly different from the demands of the progressive movement,” Brendan Lui (C’22), a co–director of Penn Young Democratic Socialists of America, says. “We’re faced with this choice, we’re not left with better options, but the alternative to Joe Biden is an authoritarian racist xenophobic fascist who will inexplicably cause a deterioration in the very fabrics of our democracy and our country and everything that the progressive movement is fighting for.”

While the presidential options are not what the progressive movement had hoped for, he says that “there are a substantial number of promising progressives who support a mandate of racial justice, environmental justice, transformative structural change to the institutions of this country that have for so long failed ordinary working people” at the local and state levels. 

Brendan emphasizes that “the election is not the end.” He sees trying to elect Biden as “a stepping stone, and as a jumping off point” to move away from the neoliberal centrist approach represented by Biden and past politicians—and which grew the economic dissatisfaction that led to Trump becoming president—and towards economic and social justice. He says that if Joe Biden wins the election, “it’s not [an] opportunity to sit back and relax, it is an opportunity to get to work.”

Amanpreet Singh (C’21), a former Street writer, wants to draw attention to the opportunities to get to work outside of electoral politics. They say that overemphasizing voting is disrespectful to the ongoing work of community organizers and distracts from the civic participation needed to fight for the rights that many say they care about such as when, for example, they express support for Black Lives Matter. “When we’re only focusing on electoral politics, we miss out on all the ways that change really happens on the ground,” they say.

Amanpreet says that the framing of this month’s election as “the end all be all, of American democracy, of women’s rights, of immigration, et cetera” also keeps hidden the violence that the U.S. government has long enacted and continues to enact on people both within its borders and internationally—and how transforming U.S. society cannot happen from within the electoral system. For example, when we vote for a president, “we’re still ignoring the fact that we commit and continue to commit genocide against indigenous peoples and we continue to support U.S. military intervention abroad and we continue to support environmental plans that support capitalism which ultimately will consume our earth.” 

They say that rather than “feeling like we’re completing something by voting,” we should recognize that we have a civic duty year–round to support community organizers both monetarily and through physical presence at protests against police brutality, strikes, and other direct actions, as well as to pressure Penn to financially support community organizations and to pay PILOTS. 

This year’s elections are over, but the importance of and opportunity for civic engagement remains. Working to make the next election more accessible, engaging with elected officials on the issues you care about, supporting your local community, and holding our school and city accountable are some of these areas identified by the students I talked to. Regardless of how much of an impact you think your vote had if you voted, or the extent to which the voting process represented what you want for the country, there continues to be work to do to ensure that your and others’ voices are heard—through elections, between elections, and beyond elections.