Student Voting: Apathy or Ignorance?
By: Tom Shea
In the 1960s and 1970s, college students promoted democracy in action, with protests and sit-ins to let Congress know they had a voice and they planned on using it. Today, it is those same radicals who are now begging the voting-eligible youth of this country to exercise their right to vote.
But the message is apparently falling on deaf ears.
According to the United States Census Bureau, there were over 28 million college age men and women eligible to vote in the last presidential election. Less than half reported they voted in 2008, and just 19.5 percent said they voted in the 2006 Congressional elections.
Why are the numbers so low? Many experts point to political apathy on the part of the students.
Dr. Donald Greenberg, a politics professor at Fairfield University, believes in the theory that there is a “total lack of interest” on the part of student-voters. “There is no relevance (for elections) in the minds of students,” said Greenberg, “and many have little knowledge regarding candidates or the elections in general.”
Dr. Greenberg associated the lack of knowledge with the small number of students who get their information from reputable or reliable sources.
“How many (students) read good newspapers or watch political talk shows?”
One look at the demographics of networks such as CNN and FOX NEWS will show that despite decent ratings overall, mostly older people watch news channels, as younger people watch more sports and television dramas than anything else. They would rather get their information from Jon Stewart rather than Wolf Blitzer.
“The media tries to encourage (student participation), even networks like MTV attempt to raise awareness,” said Greenberg, “But it has little to no effect, because (students) simply don’t pay attention. There are many shows completely dedicated to politics, but they just don’t get watched.”
Further proof of student apathy was given when the candidates for Connecticut governor Dan Malloy and Tom Foley came to Fairfield for a debate. The response by the students was lackluster at best, as there were barely any students in attendance to begin with, and most of them were only there because their professors told them to go.
Some political groups, such as the College Republicans, believe that there is some sort of social stigma attached to voting and political activity. “Many students don’t want to talk about politics, because it’s somewhat of a taboo issue,” said Gabriella Visconti ’12, the Senior Political Advisor for the College Republicans at Fairfield University, “It’s a risk to talk about it because not many people really care, and even those who do, you risk not being on the same side of the argument as them.”
Connor Wolfarth ’12, the Chairman of the Fairfield University College Republicans, agrees, and believes most people who do bother to bring it up just agree with their parents.
“Students either don’t have the time or don’t care to make their own political opinions, so frequently they just identify themselves as whatever their parents are,” said Wolfarth, “they lack strong (political) convictions.”
A voter registration drive, sponsored by the College Republicans, in the fall semester was met with “moderate success”, and Wolfarth noted that there was still “lots of room for improvement” when it comes to awareness on campus.
Visconti agrees. “On FUSA election day, people walk through the BCC and see the voting machines, and are like, ‘What’s going on?’, and that’s sad and needs to change.”
The lack of student participation in campus elections is not an isolated accident by any means. An article on the University Wire revealed that in the early to mid 2000s, the University of Arizona was getting percentages in the teens for most years, but it has been slowly increasing ever since.
In a related University Wire article, at Iowa State University officials were thrilled to be getting 25 percent of the students out to vote. Their excitement may be due to the fact that ISU only expects to get about 12 percent of the student body each election.
Both of these universities are much worse off than Fairfield in terms of student participation, but the national picture in regular elections is not much more inspiring.
Despite the down numbers, the number of college students voting on a national scale has remained rather balanced over the past decade or so, according to the Census Bureau. There is a slight increase in participation among men age 18-24, jumping from 31 percent to 41 percent between 1998 and 2008.
That is where the good news ends, however, as overall student participation in national elections has diminished significantly over the past 40 years. In 1972, 50 percent of all 18-24 year olds voted; today a little over 25 percent vote.
How Fairfield Measures Up
Fairfield University is no exception when it comes to campus elections. In the 2001 FUSA elections, about one third of the student population participated in the vote, equating to about 1100 students. In 2003, that number dwindled to 974, just below 30 percent of the student population, and then fell to 892 in 2005, which is about 26 percent participation.
Since then, a goal of 1300 student voters has been the norm for FUSA elections, according to a past Mirror article, with about 1100 showing up each year, or approximately one third of the student population.
Jim Fitzpatrick, the Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs, has noticed a change in political activism among students throughout his years at Fairfield. “There used to be more activism lead by students, which would then be covered by the newspaper (The Mirror),” said Fitzpatrick, “Now a journalistic piece will create a reaction out of students, which will sometimes lead to activism.”
“There’s something that has changed. It feels as if students are more comfortable with things the way they are than ever before, so there’s no need for activism and politics.”
Fairfield Students’ Thoughts
Fairfield University students have mixed opinions regarding voting. Freshman Chris La Greca was in favor of voting in national, state, and even local elections, but viewed campus elections as “a meaningless gesture.”
“I just don’t see the use in voting in an election where I don’t even know what the candidates stand for,” said La Greca, “It’s basically comes down to how many people you know and how many people know you.”
In a poll of Fairfield University students, about 38 percent of students said they did vote, or would have voted if they were of legal voting age, in the 2008 elections. However, only 25 percent said they voted in the 2010 Congressional and Gubernatorial elections.
In addition, approximately 30 percent of students confirmed they voted in the FUSA elections.
One student who proudly utilizes his right to vote is senior Peter Sweeney, who has voted in FUSA elections in each of his four years at Fairfield. “Voting is just one of those things that makes you feel like your opinion matters, no matter what level the election is taking place on,” said Sweeney.
“If everyone held such a low opinion on voting so as to not go out and vote, our government as we know it would stop functioning, and we could essentially enter another Dark Age.”
“I think one reason one people don’t vote is to avoid being labeled,” said Meghan Hamel ’11, “because no matter how you vote, republican or democrat, you’re going to be labeled as that type of person and viewed differently.”
Dr. Greenberg did offer one way for the numbers to improve: social networking.
“Barack Obama appealed to the younger generation in 2008 through social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, as well as MoveOn.org, and if he hopes to continue to get the young people’s vote again, he will have to keep appealing to their likes,” said Greenberg.
One thing is for sure—if you are looking to see some improvement in student participation in national elections, it would be better to wait until 2012, as odd-year elections are less attended, for every age group.