Close to 400 undergraduate students were registered to vote and requested absentee ballots for midterm elections this year, following the University Senate’s decision to pass a resolution to promote civic engagement and voter registration on campus.
The Resolution for Columbia University to Encourage Voting in Our Community and Across the Country, an initiative spearheaded by Student Affairs Committee, passed last week in the Senate. These efforts reflect Columbia students’ and local politicians’ emphasis on the need to recognize the University’s notable impact on local resources and thus local politics.
Until this point, student organizations including ColumbiaVotes, Roosevelt Institute, Hillel’s MitzVote, and Every Vote Counts have largely led the efforts to increase student voter turnout. The formation of the Civic Engagement Committee under the Office of Government Affairs this semester, however, marks a significant administration-led effort to increase student participation in civic engagement across all campuses.
President of ColumbiaVotes Paige Moskowitz, BC/JTS ’20, said that the increased administrative support from the Barnard dean of studies has also allowed the organization to open other University-led avenues, such as NSOP registration, to increase voter outreach. She said that while students are often motivated to vote by national issues, there should be an acknowledgment on behalf of Columbia students that they occupy space in New York City and should be informed accordingly.
“What we found is, very often, students have much less knowledge about local issues—especially about issues in NYC and the Morningside Heights community—if they are not from here. I would encourage students to get involved civically on every level, from local school board and city advocates and city council to national level. Civic engagement is everywhere, and it’s not just a one every four years,” she said.
Since 2003, Columbia has funded a $6.3 billion expansion of 6.8 billion square feet of land in the neighborhood of West Harlem with the aim of providing space for research opportunities for Columbia professors and students. Throughout the expansion, members of the community and Columbia-affiliates have pointed to the harmful effects of Columbia’s presence, including the displacement of Harlem residents who have contributed to the history of the community.
Community Board 9 Chair Barry Weinburg, CC ’12, said that students need to recognize the impacts of their presence in the greater New York community, including their responsibility to be civically engaged at the federal, state, and city-wide levels.
“Columbia students impact local rent. They impact local retail. They impact local services, and so much of what is important to everyone’s everyday lives is not determined by the federal government at the national level, but at the state level in Albany and at the local level here in NYC,” Weinburg said.
Weinburg recognized that many students choose to vote in their home states because they believe that their votes count more elsewhere, as New York is reliably Democratic, or because they feel more connected to the local politics. For Camila Rodriguez, SEAS ’23, her decision to vote as a Florida resident was impacted by the Parkland shooting— an incident that shed light on the consequentiality of gun control policy in a swing state.
“I have a big responsibility to vote for these laws such as gun registration and immigration policies in Florida since there’s a big immigrant community,” Rodriguez said.
But while Weinburg himself was not registered as a New York voter during his time as a student, he emphasized that Columbia students should still take the opportunity to civicially support local efforts to reform the criminal justice system, housing, and education rights. Weinburg urged students to learn about the people and resources within Morningside Heights.
“Get to know the people who live in Morningside Heights and the surrounding area, understand the history of the community, understand Columbia’s impact on the community, both currently and in the past. Think about the kind of community [you] want to be apart of, the impact [you] want to have in the community.” Weinburg said.
According to Moskowitz, local community organizations have gotten in contact with student organizations in order to inform Columbia students of the importance of designating their New York residence in the 2020 U.S. Census. She noted that local politics directly relate to the ways in which Columbia students are aware of their placement within the Harlem community.
“We live here, we work here. We are using the subways, using the streets, as [is] everyone who is living here before and after your time as a student. And, like, people who live here shouldn’t get less because [we] are not doing our duty and thinking we aren’t actually residents in this area,” Moskowitz said.