By Larissa Sweitzer
Young Pennsylvanians are taking hold of their voting power like never before.
In 2018, 40 percent of voters between 18 and 35 years-old went to the polls — nearly double the state’s youth turnout in 2014. Together, young people helped send four women to Congress, re-elect Governor Wolf, and power many more victories up and down the ballot.
As an organization committed to driving young people to the ballot box, NextGen Pennsylvania played a pivotal role in engaging and mobilizing young voters on campus, in their communities, and online in November.
Remarkably, 59 percent of young Pennsylvanians NextGen organized cast a ballot — 20 percent higher than the state’s overall youth turnout. We worked tirelessly to make youth vote history, including registering over 41,000 young Pennsylvanians to vote. For the first time in Keystone State history, registered voters aged 18-35 outnumbered voters 65 and over.
NextGen has been active in Pennsylvania since 2014, and over the last two cycles, we have registered over 120,000 young people to vote here. But with this great power comes great responsibility.
Every year, we work hard to ensure that the people we register get onto the voter rolls and can cast a ballot on Election Day.
To make sure that happens, we follow a procedure that looks like this: after we collect a new voter’s registration form, we audit the form to make sure it contains all the necessary information. Following our audit, we turn the completed form into the county clerk.
Once the form is in the county clerk’s hands, we trust them to make sure a new registrant ultimately makes it onto the rolls, but in some cases — because of illegible handwriting or staff shortages
— they do not. In that case, ten days before the voter registration deadline, we text the voters we have registered asking them to confirm that they are, in fact, on the voter rolls. We send them a link to the Secretary of State’s website to check their status, and if they are not registered in that database, we send them a link to register online.
In both 2016 and 2018, we heard from young people who, despite registering to vote with us, could not vote on Election Day. From never receiving their registration card from the clerk’s office to having their form rejected for a wrong school address, we’ve heard countless stories from students who were rejected at the polls, unable to participate in their democracy.
In fact, NextGen’s former state director registered four times in 2016, was told he was on the supplemental voters rolls, and was turned away at the polls. He received all four of his voter registration cards in January 2017.
Evidence of this problem is pervasive and consistent across the state.
In 2016, 26,000 people may not have received their voter registration cards until after the November presidential election because their forms were processed too late. Donald Trump and Pat Toomey won Pennsylvania by a slim margin in 2016— victories that decided the fate of the entire country for the next four years.
Additionally, 95,312 voters across the Commonwealth who either attempted to register to vote or change their existing voter registration were rejected. Considering that tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians were disenfranchised, the outcome of the 2016 election could have been different.
Following the 2016 reports of rampant registration delay and rejection, NextGen implemented new policies, procedures, and volunteer trainings to confirm that the young people we registered to vote made it onto the voter rolls.
We developed a new system to cross list our own audit with the voter rolls as soon as the Secretary of State’s website updated, and if we found that a young person we registered to vote didn’t make it on the voter rolls, we texted and called them to let them know that their registration was incomplete.
But despite our strict cross-list procedures, voters were again rejected from the polls in 2018. In fact, elections officials rejected more than twice as many absentee ballots in 2018 than they did in 2010.
We believe that every young Pennsylvanian should be able to cast a ballot, and we have the systems in place to meet that goal. But voter registration is not a one-way street. We need the state and county clerks to improve how they process new voters, especially in the months leading up to a big election.
Together with We the People – Pennsylvania, Planned Parenthood PA Advocates, For Our Future & For Our Future Action Fund, and Pennsylvania United, we are asking lawmakers, school administrators, and county clerk offices to commit to improving their processes and help us tackle this statewide issue. We are calling for an open dialogue between voter registration organizations and our leaders on how we can improve our election systems so that 26,000 voters never fall through the cracks again.
Next year, 2020, will be a monumental year for political participation, and we hope to bring as many young people into the fold as we can. But in order to do that, we all must work together to ensure that every new voter has a say in what the future of their country looks like.
Larissa Sweitzer is the Pennsylvania state director for NextGen America, a super PAC organized by progressive activist Tom Steyer, that focuses on registering young Americans to vote and to turn out on Election Day.