Thirty-six percent — that’s how many Penn State students cast a vote during the 2016 presidential election. Penn State’s League of Women Voters wants that number to be higher.
Penn State will be the first university with its own chapter of the League of Women Voters, which will be up and running by the end of this semester.
President of the Penn State chapter Sarabeth Bowmaster said her passion for politics — as well as her belief that a functioning society enables people of all backgrounds to have a voice, led her to become involved with the League.
“Penn State is a massive university but only a very low number actually vote, so we’re trying to encourage student voting, especially because what we vote for is really important for us since we’ll be the ones most affected,” Bowmaster (freshman - political science and women’s studies) said. “Our goal is to try and raise voter turnout and voter knowledge on campus.”
The chapter is currently in its beginning stages of registering as an official student organization, finishing its constitution, and gaining members. Last semester, the chapter hosted a general interest meeting with Laura Brown, a member of the League’s Centre County chapter.
When Brown retired from her career at Penn State, she knew she wanted to invest her time ensuring that students were encouraged in every way possible to become familiar with their political system and become an informed voter.
From her experience working in a university setting, she saw how there are many policies and procedures that “inadequately disenfranchise” students from voting. She joined the League to help students overcome those roadblocks.
“The League of Women Voters enables voting,” Brown said. “It helps people understand voting policies and procedures, helps people to get to know the candidates and helps get people the information they need to make up their minds and get to the polls.”
According to Brown, the biggest issue that impacts people’s decisions on who they elect is education, in addition to the prevalence of social media and the 24-hour news cycle. Brown said sometimes the overabundance of information, especially news that isn’t vetted and inaccurate, can be difficult to navigate.
“It takes a lot of research, effort and commitment to sort out reality from the massive amounts of distorted information that is out there,” Brown said. “There’s a lot out there to make your way through and the League is an organization that tries to dwindle that down to the most critical elements people need in order to cast an informed ballot.”
The League of Women Voters was founded following women’s suffrage. As their official website describes it, it began as a “’mighty political experiment,’ designed to help 20 million women carry out their new responsibilities as voters.”
Today, the League operates in all 50 states with over 700 local chapters.
The Centre County chapter of the League of Women Voters is well known in the community for its candidate nights, where candidates come to a hosted event, share their outlooks on a variety of topics and interact with the public. This event occurs before regular and primary elections and, as Brown described it, is the “cornerstone of the League’s aim to educate voters.”
Additionally, the Centre County Chapter has a comprehensive website with information to aid voters in understanding the voting process. On the website, there is a link to 411Vote, an initiative that allows people to input their addresses and find their polling location. For many students, however, this information isn’t accessible as their dorm addresses don’t appear in the system.
“I think in many ways college students have the biggest challenges right now in voting because they can vote either home or at school so you have to make that decision. Voting practices and procedures differ from state to state so you have to become familiar with the policies and procedures for the place that you choose,” Brown said. “If you choose home, often times the absentee ballot process can be complex. If you choose school, there’s a chance you’ll be unavailable on the day you’re supposed to vote. Students really have a challenge and I’m hoping the student league can address that.”
Brown explained how the current university policies surrounding Election Day are not effective in enabling all voters to cast their ballot. Professors are allowed to assign exams on election days, and students are not excused from classes to vote.
Since Tuesdays are typically class-heavy days on campus, these policies — or lack thereof — can have a large impact on voter turnout.
In the past, the Centre County chapter worked in conjunction with UPUA to try to get a satellite election office in the HUB-Robeson Center that would allow students to request, complete and submit ballots as a one stop shop. The proposal made it as far as the board of elections but was turned down due to the need for an election official.
Brown cited this as an example of how many ideas start out seeming simple but end up being far more complicated and difficult to implement in the university setting.
All students, regardless of gender, are encouraged to join the organization if they’re interested in democracy. The organization is nonpartisan and committed to providing information to help voters on all sides of the political spectrum.
“The organization will help students compare candidates by providing information on where they stand on current topics: on the environment, on guns, on abortion,” Brown said. “It’s not saying this is where a candidate stands so you should vote for them, it’s saying this is where a candidate stands — hold that up against your own values and make a decision about who you want to cast your vote for.”
Coined with the name “League of Women Voters,” some may assume it to be a women’s interest organization. Bowmaster said it’s better described as an organization that aims to help all people, regardless of background, become knowledgeable about what exactly they’re voting for. Still, she does see meaning in the name and the organization’s history.
“I think as a society we are really progressing, but we’ve still never had a woman president,” Bowmaster said. “It’s so important for women, especially young women, to have their own representation and see other women in positions of power to see that they do have a say in what’s going on around them.”