Student groups seek to promote political participation

This story was originally featured in the Campus Times (2014).

For many college-aged American citizens, this week’s election was the first of many opportunities to cast a ballot. Yet a large turnout was not expected. In recent elections, young people have been criticized for their lack of participation at the polls.

In the 2012 presidential elections, approximately 35% of 18-20 year-olds and 40% of 21-24 year-olds placed a ballot. This year, these numbers were expected to be even lower, consistent with the downward trend in student voting that began in the 1980s, when voter turnout hovered around 50%.

This could suggest that young people are apathetic to politics and current events, but this doesn’t seem to be the case.

“Young people participate in [avenues] other than voting, often in greater numbers than older people,” political science professor Richard Niemi, who teaches a course on Voting and Elections, said. “Protesting is the most prominent way.”

The millennial generation has also grown up with more media influence than past generations. They are more adept at using social media and are constantly bombarded with information, increasing the likelihood that they are in tune with current political events.

President of the Committee for Political Engagement Rachel Goldberg believes that it is imperative for students to take the time to vote because their voices are, in fact, very important.

“The millennial generation tends to favor and support a different set of issues than its parents’ generation,” Goldberg said.

She’s right too. Millennials have grown up with the LGBTQ, modern feminism, and climate change movements and therefore may advocate for different political decisions than those who have never had such exposure.

Sophomore Colin Woods, who cast a ballot for his home state of Maryland on Tuesday, agreed. “There’s really no reason not to vote,” he said. “If you don’t [vote], you might not see the change you’d like to see.”

The age distribution of the American citizenry has recently become skewed toward the older demographic thanks to the aging baby boomer population. Based purely on numbers, the elderly have more potential influence than younger people, Professor Niemi explained.

“Since seniors rely heavily upon the government for assistance, it makes sense that the voter turnout of this demographic is significant,” UR Democrats president Kevin Connell said.

However, it’s inevitable that the decisions passed in Congress will have a greater impact on young people in the future, especially on issues concerning insurance coverage in the workplace and climate change activism.

Even with this in mind, many still find it hard to believe that a single vote can actually make a difference. Yet, with the Monroe County congressional campaign between Louise Slaughter and Mark Assini coming down to just a few votes, the participation of UR students could most definitely have shifted the election one way or the other. A group of six friends could have conceivably decided the congressional delegate from Monroe County.

By encouraging voting, larger percentages of voters will make an impact over time. Facebook advertised the election by encouraging members to post buttons alerting their friends that they are voting in an attempt to mobilize further participation.

“Being active through phone banking, canvassing, and organized discussion are all ways that we can have a significant impact on politics in our community,” Connell said.

This sort of political engagement has a strong presence on college campuses around the country. At UR, a variety of clubs and organizations promote political awareness, including College Democrats, College Republicans, Students for Liberty, and the Committee for Political Action (CPE).

CPE has been working to make the registration and voting process easier for students, especially in the weeks leading up to the elections, insuring their peers knew where to go on Election Day.

“We recently did a photo campaign where students shared the reasons they vote,” Goldberg said. “The pictures in the album we posted to Facebook amassed hundreds of likes, and we’re hoping people will feel obligated to vote by seeing that their peers do [so].”

There are also events held on campus that aim to increase political awareness among students. College Democrats and College Republicans recently held a panel on American foreign policy in the Middle East.

“Under the moderation of Israel Council, the three groups discussed the topic in front of an audience of over 50 students and University staff,” Connell said.

College Democrats has also organized phone banks and canvassing opportunities around local neighborhoods.

Another alternative to political organizations on campus are student awareness groups, which are designed to  “draw people together to share ideas and work toward a common goal,” Goldberg said. “If there’s an issue you’re passionate about, join a club and gain the support and resources to take action and build awareness around that issue.”

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