Volkswagen of America is sharing the story of how one VW Vanagon Westfalia helps thousands of Philadelphians get out the vote.
Civic groups are looking for creative ways to reach prospective voters amid the pandemic, which has disrupted the traditional means of voter registration and election participation.
Enter a patriotically wrapped 1991 VW van that recently played a crucial role in Philadelphia’s recent primary election, when it helped collect over 5,000 mail-in ballots from local voters.
“People don’t vote every day, they vote twice a year -- if that -- so it’s really important for us to help them understand the rules, their options and how they can make their votes count,” said David Thornburgh, president of the Philadelphia-based Committee of Seventy, a nonpartisan, "good government" group founded in 1904, which owns the van.
Before measures to combat the coronavirus were put into place, Pennsylvania had already given voters the ability to vote by mail in this year’s primary election. However, in the wake of the pandemic, the response from voters was overwhelming. More than 1.8 million residents applied to vote via absentee ballot or by mail.
To help ease the strain on the system, the city commissioners’ office reached out to Thornburgh to see whether the Committee of Seventy could put its Vanagon Westfalia to work publicizing ballot drop-off locations.
“My thought was pretty simple: people would stop and spot this crazy red, white and blue van and think, well, this must be the right place to drop off my ballot,” Thornburgh says.
A VW enthusiast, Thornburgh has owned multiple Volkswagens, including a 1985 Golf and two other “Westys” (a 1987 and 1988 model) before purchasing the Vanagon Westfalia in August 2016.
Originally painted white, the 1991 Westfalia was wrapped in Wilmington, Delaware in early March. In addition to adding bright colors, Thornburgh decorated the van with several of the committee’s ongoing campaigns and slogans, including hashtags promoting civic education and messages like “Voters Wanted.”
Thornburgh says the Westfalia is the “perfect vehicle to promote local democracy, voting and community awareness” ahead of a busy 2020 election.
“There’s something special about the Volkswagen brand that feels familiar and inviting,” he says. “Volkswagens have always felt like they’re part of our community.”