“Young people don’t vote.”
This statement isn’t an exaggeration. In the last midterm election, just 16 percent of Americans aged 18-24 voted. This compares to 59 percent of 64-year-old to 75-year-old Americans. In 2016, we voted at a rate of 39 percent while the national average voter turnout rate was 56 percent.
You may be thinking, “But this is Columbia! We’re like, notoriously political! Of course people are voting!” We would bet that this campus is no exception. Your peers are not voting. Your friends are not voting. The people down the hall? They aren’t voting either. This is because, as many political scientists will tell you, voter turnout relies on social pressure. In your home community, everyone votes in the same races, and you may vote with family members or friends. But on campus, the social structures that reinforce voting behavior dissipate. Your friends and family aren’t here to remind you about the voting specifics of your home community, go to the polls with you, or talk about the pros and cons of candidates. On campus, you’re left on your own to remember to participate in your local communities. If you’re from California, there’s no group trip to the polls on election day with all your friends. It’s on you and you alone to remember to register to vote, request your absentee ballot, and send it back.
But lack of social pressure isn’t the only thing keeping us from voting.
Each state has its own obscure deadlines and rules that make the voting process confusing, especially for new voters. If you want to vote absentee in your home state, first you need to mail in a request form by a specific date, meaning you need to consider how you will vote weeks in advance. You need to look up the information online, print the form, find a stamp, and mail in the form. All this only to wait multiple days for your county to send you your ballot. In the process of studying for midterms, it’s hard to find the time to prepare for the midterms.
Setting aside the difficulties of registering to vote, many of us choose not to vote for a multitude of reasons. Some of us are frustrated with a “rigged” political system. Others claim that our vote doesn’t count because our home state is too red or blue to begin with, or that in the grand scheme of things, our single vote doesn’t make any actual difference. But this couldn’t be farther from the truth. There were over 98 million eligible non-voters in the 2016 election. When you consider that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote with over 65 million votes, nonvoters are the most powerful voting block in the country. Voting is at the very core of representative government, but the government only represents those who vote. Not voting is a choice in itself: an active decision to amplify the voices of other citizens and silence your own.
The 20,000 of us on this campus who are eligible to vote have no excuse. Columbia boasts about being a community of civically-minded global citizens, but we aren’t doing enough to make this image a reality. The culture of activism needs to extend to increased voter turnout. Of course, protests, discussions, marches, and community organizing are all vital to affecting change in society, but if you aren’t actually showing up at the polls (and moreover, if your representatives in Washington know you won’t show up to the polls so they don’t feel the need to consider your interests), then what’s the point? The policies you march for will only be implemented by public servants you put into office and who, once elected, can be your advocates.
It was our collective frustration with low voter engagement combined with a desire to make voting more accessible that compelled us, along with other members of the Roosevelt Institute and representatives of Voting Week, Every Vote Counts, and Mitzvote, to start CUvotes, an aggressive voter contact program intent on changing voting culture on campus from apathy to engagement.
We at CUvotes want to help you navigate the confusing voting process. You can drop by any of our tables at Barnard and Columbia to print out your voter registration or absentee ballot request form. You can add your information to our system, and we will remind you to check your mailbox for your ballot. We also provide free stamps and envelopes, and will even mail your ballot for you to save you a trip to USPS. Voting in New York with your campus address? Walk with us to the polls on November 6.
We can’t change voter participation on our own. Whether the Columbia community ends up voting this November is up to each and every one of us. We change the culture around voting when we have more conversations about it. So ask your friends if they are registered to vote and how they plan to cast their ballot. Make it obvious that you care whether they are voting. And most importantly, follow up with them afterwards. We have an urgent responsibility to hold the members of our community accountable and make it clear that choosing not to vote is simply not an option anymore. If we can succeed in this, our government will serve our collective interests and the futures we work so hard for.
To check your registration status, register to vote, or request an absentee ballot, head to vote.org.
Marion Gibson is a senior at Barnard majoring in environmental policy. Gibson is the director of the Democratic Access Center at the Roosevelt Institute. Paige Moskowitz is a junior at Barnard and JTS majoring in history and Jewish law. Before CUvotes, she handed out stamps and envelopes to students in Milstein Center as a means to get people to vote. Both authors are from Houston, Texas and would love to talk to you about how gerrymandered their state is.
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