David Owolabi, ‘20, wants to ensure voting in the 2020 presidential election is accessible to students and that their academic commitments will not hinder their presence at the polls.
He started a petition to urge Lehigh to cancel classes on Nov. 3 in order to allow more students to vote.
As of July 6, the petition has 1,383 signatures, and has gained the attention of the university.
Owolabi graduated in May, and he found himself with free time to do what he can to make a difference on an issue he cares about.
“I have a point of view just like anyone has an opinion, but this isn’t about my political opinion,” Owolabi said. “This is about our generation taking a stance and getting involved with how our country is run.”
College aged students have notoriously been an unreliable age group at the polls. But it’s getting better, according to a national study by the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University. Voter turnout for young adults aged 18 to 24 was 34.6 percent in the 2018 midterms, compared to 13.5 in 2014.
Despite the improvement, voter turnout among young adults still lagged behind the national voter turnout rate in 2018 of 53.4 percent — up 11 points from the 2014 midterms, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Voter turnout is traditionally higher in a presidential election year like 2020. About 61 percent of the voting-eligible population voted in both the 2016 and 2012 elections.
Among Lehigh students, there was a 20.6 percent increase in voter turnout from the 2014 election to the 2018 election. Thirty-four percent of Lehigh students voted in 2018 while 13.4 percent voted in 2014.
“(If) we don’t have a good turnout, we cannot make decisions as a country, (and) we are making decisions with small groups in mind,” Owolabi said.
He remembers the decision he had to make on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016: eating dinner in the midst of studying for his calculus test and voting in the 2016 presidential election.
Owolabi chose to eat dinner.
He did not vote in the first presidential election he was eligible for, and he was surprised by the outcome. Disappointed in himself for not voting in 2016, he will never forget his decision.
Owolabi and four other Lehigh students and recent graduates are working together to ignite the conversation about voter turnout within the Lehigh community.
They have reached out to every faculty member to urge them to cancel their classes on Nov. 3. So far, 12 professors have signed on to cancel their classes to allow for students to vote in a more accessible fashion.
Owolabi said the student committee that organized the petition is preparing to reach out directly to President John Simon and other senior administrators.
“Lehigh is aware of the petition,” Lori Friedman, a Lehigh spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement. “Senior leaders and administrators are actively discussing how to encourage greater civic participation among our students and the wider Lehigh community. We welcome ideas, including those proposed in the student-driven petition.”
The committee is organizing a day of service for the Lehigh community that will be full of volunteer and educational opportunities for students on Nov. 3 when they are not in class, as well as community partnerships and incentives for voting such as coupons to local restaurants or extra credit in classes.
The group is currently brainstorming other ways students can help out on Election Day, such as handing out hand sanitizer at the polls. This year’s general election — much like the primaries — will likely see many voters choose to vote by mail due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I want us to galvanize ourselves,” Owolabi said. “I want us to make an impact and try to fight for what we believe in. For any student who hasn’t gotten involved in politics yet, I would ask them to think about their life and think about what is important to them. If they see what is going on in the world and they have opinions and they want to see things change for the better, the first thing they can do is vote.”
Brandon Judge, ‘21, is part of Hawk the Vote, the student-led effort to cancel classes on Election Day. He is passionate about classes being canceled because he believes it would allow for many more students to vote.
Judge said he knows many students who regret not voting in 2016, and he does not want anyone to be held back from voting in this election.
Lehigh’s position in Pennsylvania means every vote can truly make a difference. Pennsylvania, a swing state, was narrowly won by President Donald Trump four years ago. Trump also bested Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by just 5,000 votes in Northampton County in 2016.
And the region is sure to be hotly contested yet again. Trump’s Lehigh Valley visit just two months ago has made that clear.
“[There needs to be a] cultural shift among young students,” Judge said “Getting involved in politics isn’t a choice, but something you need to do as a citizen of this country. Unfortunately in our precinct, which is mostly Lehigh students, turnout is pretty low. A lot of Lehigh students just don’t really see themselves involved in politics. It’s just not something they’re interested in, and I would like to see that change on a local level.”
Judge said Lehigh does not do enough to match student activism, exhibited by its response to George Floyd’s murder, and that this would be a great way for the administration to show they care about students needs.
Judge said he would like to see an effort led by the administration encouraging students to vote. In 2018, the Student Political Action Coalition organized a huge effort to help students vote and drove over 100 people to the polls on Election Day.
He said a great way to spread the word about voting would be having the political science department host a campus-wide event.
“It’s hard to see the direct impact that voting has on us, but there’s so many issues that might be subtle, like climate change, student loans (and) health care,” Judge said. “All of these issues indirectly and directly affect millions of Americans, including Lehigh students. It’s important to have your voice in these issues not only to help your community, but (to) help others around you, especially with this election.”
Brian Fife, professor and chair of the political science department, shared his opinions on voter accessibility with The Brown and White in an email statement.
“I advocate Election Weekend in early November,” Fife said in the email “This would be helpful to not only students in higher education, but all citizens across the country. It would simplify the 51 differential election laws (50 states plus D.C.) and mandate an Election Weekend, and it could include a requirement that all voting areas be open for 15 hours on both days (Saturday and Sunday, 6 a.m.- 9 p.m. local time). New York state already utilizes this approach to elections. In other states, the polls are only open for 12 hours, such as Indiana (6 a.m.-6 p.m.).
He also encourages the notion of same-day voter registration. He said in some states, citizens must register to vote 30 days in advance of the election date, and that this concept “has the effect of depressing voter turnout.”
Owolabi said, for students nervous about the current condition of the United States, now is the best time to take action and make their voices heard.
“If you think you don’t know enough to get involved, it’s OK to start from the beginning,” Owolabi said. “A quick Google search [to learn more], just try your best, try to get involved, we’re in this together.”