Around the time of the 2008 presidential election, the Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy conducted over 1,000 interviews from a nationally collected sample of four-year college students. According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the survey concluded that American college students are “politically engaged and have strong opinions about candidates and election issues, but are pessimistic, overall, about the state of the nation.”
This dissatisfaction should not come as a big surprise, even if we apply the survey’s results to this upcoming election. Many students at the 5Cs find that their politics simply do not align with either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Some of these students decide to vote for third-party candidates, whose merits and faults could be the subject of an entirely different article. What remains most concerning, however, is the population of students who decide not to vote, either to make a political statement, or because they lack the resources or knowledge to vote.
When asked about his plans to vote, an anonymous student said, “Not voting is a political statement. I disagree with all the candidates on the ballot. It’s my right as a citizen to abstain [from voting], and so I’m exercising that right.” Although it is valid to disagree with both presidential candidates, the question must be asked: If abstaining is a political statement, who will hear it? Not voting, or even registering, especially, represents a surrendering of your rights as a citizen, rights that many in this country have had to fight harder for than others.
Furthermore, not registering inhibits you from voting for propositions and supporting political efforts on a local and state level, initiatives that arguably affect everyday citizens more than the presidential election.
Here at the 5Cs, students make strides to educate their peers about voter registration, especially because the process can often be confusing. Given that the consortium is comprised of students from geographically diverse backgrounds, students leading voting initiatives must provide educational material for all 50 states. Dana Nothnagel PZ '19, who is involved in Student Choices, Student Voices, a group run through Pitzer’s community engagement center, said, “Each state has its own registration process, varying identification requirements, and different deadlines. This makes it difficult for administration to distribute information to the whole student body.”
Furthermore, most 5C students must attain absentee ballots, a process that requires even more education materials, applications, and deadlines. Nothnagel brings up another vital point about states that actively oppress voting rights, especially those of young people. She notes, “In Michigan, voters that didn’t register in-person aren’t able to vote by mail, which prevents almost all out-of-state students from voting. In New York, voters need to affiliate with a party a full six months before the primary election, primarily affecting young people, who represent the highest percentage of independent voters.”
College campuses have historically served as spaces for political discourse and radical reform movements. In many instances, college students like Nothnagel have always driven voter registration efforts and social justice activism, and should continue to do so. However, our colleges must be held more responsible in motivating students to register.
According to The New York Times, the federal Higher Education Amendments of 1998 require colleges to make a “good faith effort” in distributing registration material to students. However, as this language indicates, institutions of higher learning are permitted to interpret the amendments as loosely as they would like. Therefore, there exist no concrete conditions under which institutions need to encourage their students to vote. Although such flexibility is advantageous in consideration of students who are undocumented and may, therefore, experience isolation in a mandatory voter registration, colleges like ours should be held to a stronger standard when it comes to the overall process.
The 5Cs should follow in Northwestern University’s example, for instance. An astonishing 96% of the university’s incoming class is registered to vote, thanks to an online registration tool developed in partnership with Vote.org. According to Evanston Now, the system simplifies the entire process by allowing students, faculty, and staff “to check registration status, register to vote, update registration information, and request an absentee ballot.”
NU Votes, a program of the Center for Civic Engagement, also ensured that every freshman on campus could register to vote on their first day of campus by having registration stations in dorms on move-in day. Evanston Now concludes that such efforts led to “more than double the number of registered freshmen voters by the end of their first day on campus, setting a new voter registration record.”
A quick glance at both the Scripps College and Claremont McKenna College websites show the same statement regarding registration: “[The] College actively encourages students to register to vote. Registering and voting are important aspects of your rights and responsibilities as an informed citizen.” The 5Cs should, like Northwestern, institutionalize voting registration efforts. While student-led initiatives are vital to how young people interact with their local and national government frameworks, we must have more support from our institutions. Otherwise, our student population will remain disengaged in the issues that should, and will, affect them most this November.
Tiara Sharma SC '20 is from Braintree, Massachusetts. She intends on majoring in English and maybe philosophy.