This article is part of a special issue looking at Columbia's stake in Tuesday's elections. Read the rest of the special issue here.
There is not often a shortage of political conversation at Columbia, least of all in an election season. But converting talk into votes is not a step college students historically take with any high turnout, so for campus political clubs, the approach to Election Day means letting students know that their votes can have an impact.
The Columbia University Democrats and Columbia University College Republicans have tailored their efforts to their respective supporters, while the multi-partisan Columbia Political Union encourages students, regardless of political affiliation, to vote.
Though both the CU Dems and CUCR have been actively meeting the whole semester, they serve different purposes. The Dems dedicate themselves to grassroots efforts to re-elect President Barack Obama, CC ’83, while CUCR focuses on providing a community for the minority of campus conservatives.
“What we really feel like when targeting the Columbia population is that this school is by and large liberal, so it’s not so much persuasion—although we’re doing that—as reminding people of all the great things that have happened in the past four years and why they should want that to happen again,” CU Dems President Janine Balekdjian, CC ’14, said.
As part of their efforts, the Dems have manned phone banks every Thursday with Obama for America and created an informational poster campaign around campus based on the website whatthefuckhasobamadonesofar.com.
The organization will expanded its efforts on Thursday with an “Ask me why I’m voting for Obama” table on Low Plaza.
The Dems will cap off their efforts this weekend with their annual campaign trip to Ohio. With 200 students signed up, it’s the biggest out-of-state group campaigning in the state, according to the Obama for America representative the Dems have been in contact with. Balekdjian said she expected the delegation to knock on some 60,000 doors to convince people to vote for Obama.
“The campaign trip is a Dems tradition, but it’s also a Columbia tradition,” Balekdjian said. “The Dems have done it every year since way before I was at Columbia.”
Political activism takes a different form for the campus Republicans. CUCR leaders say they realize that emulating the Dems’ grassroots efforts wouldn’t be effective on such a liberal campus in a strong Democratic state.
“There’s not a lot of value of trying to do ‘get out the vote’ stuff in New York City,” Nashoba Santhanam, CC ’13 and CUCR president, said. “Even if there were a lot of Republicans who aren’t voting, it’s not going to change the tide of the state of New York.”
Instead, the group aims to foster the ideological aspect of the campus’ conservative culture. Members of the organization regularly participate in CPU-moderated debates with the Dems and occasionally contribute opinion pieces to campus publications to help students better understand their views, according to Santhanam.
“We’re not trying to convince them to believe what we believe, but we are trying to convince them that we have valid viewpoints,” Santhanam said.
In October, the Dems and the Republicans participated in two campus debates, one on gun control and the other on health care. CPU periodically sponsors multi-partisan forums, including the gun control debate, which executive manager Mingming Feng, CC ’14, called opportunities to educate students of all political parties on the issues.
“It’s easy to fall into a partisan rut,” Feng said. “What we’re trying to do is eliminate the nuts and bolts of the issues so that students can come to a better understanding of how these issues play into elections.”
Nick Singer, CC ’14 and CPU’s director of events, added, “I think a lot of students would be surprised to know how much these issues affect them.”
That political clubs have a visible presence on campus is important, club leaders say, because the upcoming election will be many undergraduates’ first time voting for president. But busy schedules and forgotten deadlines complicate the process.
“It’s not necessarily that they don’t care about voting, it’s just that things pile up and they forget,” Feng said.
Columbia has always encouraged civic engagement by treating the Tuesday election day as a University holiday. In 1972, it began to give Monday off as well, with the intention of allowing students the chance to go home and vote in local elections. Now, though, many students whose homes are far from Columbia’s campus rely on absentee ballots.
Absentee ballots, while helpful in principle, sometimes make voting more complicated, students said.
Matt Swallow, CC ’14, tried registering for an absentee ballot in Utah, but “it never came,” he said. He ended up calling his dad and telling him how he wanted his ballot filled out.
Thomas Elling, CC ’14, said that obtaining an absentee ballot in Minnesota was relatively easy but that “there were still some hoops to jump through.”
Websites like TurboVote aim to make participation in the political process easier for students. These sites provide students with necessary forms, give them pre-addressed and stamped envelopes, and send text message reminders about upcoming elections.
A big push by TurboVote on campus resulted in the website registering more than 950 Columbia students since June 2012. Still, students have found mixed results on its effectiveness.
“It was very convenient,” Serena Shah-Simpson, SEAS ’16, said, adding that the stamped envelopes made the process simpler.
On the other hand, Matt Sheridan, SEAS ’16, said that he found TurboVote difficult to use.
“It wasn’t very helpful,” he said. “It kept mixing up my zip code, so I just went to my state website.”
Despite these obstacles, many Columbia students believe voting in the election is important. Maia Claman, CC ’16, said, “It’s the only time we get a say.”
“Columbia students tend to be politically active, but they also tend to stay within their comfort zone and stick to the issues and opinions they feel most comfortable with,” Feng said. She added that she hopes the work of campus political groups can allow students to come away with “not an entirely new position, but something new to think about.”
Read the rest of the special issue here.