While a global pandemic has put many things on hold, it didn’t stop the democratic process.
Case in point: Restrictions on large group gatherings imposed throughout Pennsylvania to stem the spread of the coronavirus forced the cancellation of Penn State Mont Alto’s voter-registration event in September, so organizers made it virtual. While it couldn’t be the big to-do in the campus dining hall as originally planned, it could be available on any device with an internet connection.
Kira Hamman, assistant teaching professor of mathematics, and reference and instruction librarian Kristi Addleman Ritter created Mont Alto Votes, a program encouraging all Mont Alto campus community members to register to vote and apply for mail-in voting when appropriate.
“Democracy doesn’t work as well if you don’t have participation in it,” Ritter said.
The honors program, which Hamman coordinates, and the campus library co-sponsored a push for voter registration to coincide with the commemoration of Constitution Day, which marks the Sept. 17, 1787, signing of the U.S. Constitution by the Founding Fathers.
Ritter created a Mont Alto Votes website (https://guides.libraries.psu.edu/MN/Votes) with critical election-related dates and voting guidelines for all the U.S. states and designated tabs for Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia since the majority of Mont Alto’s students hail from those states.
Ritter said she planned to take down the Mont Alto Votes site after the Nov. 3 election, but reactivate it before the next one in about two years.
Faculty members were asked to dedicate some class time on Sept. 16 and 17 to letting students go on the Mont Alto Votes site, where they could read about the voting process and find links to state websites where they could register to vote.
Some faculty walked students through the registration procedure, some talked about voting in class and some tried to give the students time to register online. Ritter, Hamman and Robin Yaure, professor of teaching, human development and family studies at Penn State Mont Alto, were available during class times for drop-in Zoom sessions with students who had questions.
Campus conversations regarding voter registration were nonpartisan, with an emphasis not on for whom people vote but on the importance of voting.
“We want students to feel empowered to participate in the political process,” Hamman said. “We tried to be totally nonpartisan and I think we succeeded.”
In her conversations with students, Hamman said she was impressed by how many were actively engaged in the democratic right and privilege described in the Constitution.
“I was pleasantly surprised by how many students were already registered to vote and how many planned to vote,” Hamman said.
To further Penn State Mont Alto’s goal of being recognized as a community resource, Hamman organized an October symposium on political polarization. Pennsylvania Reps. Paul Schemel (R-Franklin) and Pam DeLissio (D-Montgomery/Philadelphia) discussed the growing political divide in the state and the country, and how it affects the health of democracy.
Schemel, who is on the campus advisory board, and DeLissio participated via Zoom, through which the community could join in the conversation. The student center was open on a limited capacity, where people could watch it being streamed live.
Hamman found the civility between Schemel and DeLissio and the respect for each other’s opinions refreshing and served as a good model for Mont Alto students.
“It’s hard work to hold ideas in your mind that are not consistent with your own worldview,” Hamman said.