Before you guess, open Facebook and read the posts. One about an “unforgivable” gaffe by a presidential candidate. Another beseeching signatures for a petition to ban hydrofracking. Go to dinner and listen to people passionately discussing abortion rights, campaign finance, and other concerns that come up in their home towns and home states. Attend a meeting of the 5C Democrats or Republicans, a meeting of those who lobby, who write and campaign, and those who seek justice of all kinds. Think about all the people you know, yourself included, who care about political issues, however big or small they may seem.
Back to the initial question: how many students voted in the 2014 Midterm Elections? At Pomona College, 17 percent. At Claremont McKenna College, 18 percent. And at Harvey Mudd College, 14 percent. The National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE), a study housed at Tufts University, recently published those rates for the three schools. Pitzer College and Scripps College did not participate in the study. These numbers account for students under 18 and international students but do not reflect the population of undocumented students or those otherwise ineligible to vote. NSLVE collects enrollment records from more than 850 colleges across the country and publicly available voting records. The numbers for the 2012 General election are better: 51 percent of eligible Pomona students, 52 percent of CMC students, and 46 percent of Mudd students.
These numbers deserve context. The national voting rate in 2012 was 57.5 percent and in 2014, 36.3 percent. In general, younger people tend to vote less, and according to NSLVE, the three schools had voting rates in both elections similar to other undergraduate institutions. Barely more than half the eligible population votes in high-visibility general elections that dominate national attention. Even fewer vote in low-visibility elections, midterm congressional races, and local state and city contests. Our numbers are not shameful or embarrassing, but rather, they are symbolic of national trends. As Pomona politics professor David Menefee-Libey puts it, “This is not so much a [5C] problem as it is an American problem.”
Politics requires patience. Change marches to a largo tempo. Menefee-Libey started teaching at Pomona in 1989. The world has changed since then. The Soviet Union no longer exists and gay marriage is legal. One does not need his pedigree to appreciate the difference, but the professor hopes that students recognize “that the policy concerns that they have that governments affect happen fairly slowly. So, it requires an attention span to have any impact on them. Voting only in a Presidential election, and then neglecting to vote two years later, means that one will only have a very limited impact on those policy questions.”
A vote for a presidential candidate is without question, gravely important. But a vote for a city councilman who agrees with you on education, a state senator who aligns with your view on healthcare, or even a congressman who simply supports your preferred presidential candidate, might be even more important.
There are tangible ways to increase the voting rate. Nancy Thomas, director of the research team that produces the NSLVE, wants to see all barriers to voting removed and argues that “campuses should not assume that students know how to vote—what their civil rights are, how a voting machine works, or where to go to vote.”
Menefee-Libey agrees and encourages his students to make concrete plans about how they will vote. Only about 12 percent of those on campus who voted did so in person in 2012 and 2014. For most, absentee ballots are necessary. As it has done in the past, Pomona will work with Turbo Vote this year, a non-partisan organization that helps students navigate registration and request absentee ballots. In addition, another outside organization will operate a weekly voter registration table outside Frank Dining Hall. These efforts are positive and help students with the cumbersome, technical details of voting.
Pomona Vice President and Dean of Students Miriam Feldblum supports independent registration drives and firmly believes in more dialogue on voting. In a recent conversation, she explained her understandable uncertainty about the proper role for Pomona to play in encouraging voting as an institution. There is at once a desire to express shared values and encourage civic participation, and a simultaneous concern for appearing partisan and alienating members of the student body who are ineligible to vote.
In Feldblum’s eyes right now, Pomona’s role is to facilitate rather than implore. I’d like to see the institution, and all others, do more. Thomas’ Institute for Democracy and Higher Education published a report on what campuses should do with their NSLVE report. The report references efforts of schools across the country, some that require all college-funded student organizations to help register voters, one that provides data to professors across disciplines to engage students in discussions of the public relevance of their field and the implications of low voter turnout. Perhaps most importantly, many schools publicize the results of their NSLVE report, and one school has even worked with visual artists to help display the results around campus.
I don’t feel qualified or comfortable making generalized pronouncements about why college students don’t vote. I certainly do not agree with observers who conclude that our generations’ low voting rate is due to laziness or apathy. Young people have historically voted less than their elders. I don’t think that finger wagging does any good, as voting is an intensely personal form of expression and people deserve more than didactic instructions. Nevertheless, I feel it is important to say forcefully and resolutely that your opinions and voice matter, and one of the best ways to let those in power hear it is to vote. Vote, in every election you can, primary and general. Those words you read on Facebook, the voices you hear in the dining hall, and all the compassionate political choruses around these campuses are already loud. Let’s amplify them.
Lucas Carmel PO '19 is studying politics and history. He also does improv and works with the Rooftop Garden Project.