Do Colleges Alleviate Or Contribute To Voter Apathy?

I am Generation X. Now in my 40s, I view the world very differently than when I was a 20-something college student. In fact, I was one of those people who didn’t vote in every presidential election because, like many of today’s young adults, I didn’t think my vote mattered. Looking back to my college days and my early career on college campuses, I don’t remember ever being told how to register and where to vote. I didn’t even know until recently that the Higher Education Act (HEA) requires colleges and universities to make a good-faith effort to help students register.

Now, I’m the director of the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, which is working to change campus culture and college student behaviors. Many college campuses avoid anything related to elections for fear of seeming partisan, but there are two unintended consequences to this reluctance to engage. First, it sends the message to young people at a formative time that voting is not important. And second, it sends the message that college students are not smart enough to take information, think about it critically, and make a decision that is best for them.

Colleges and universities must refocus on educating for democratic engagement, and voting needs to become an expected behavior of students and graduates, not just an option. 

There is an assumption among many that colleges have the power to influence an election by indoctrinating students in one ideology or another. But in my view, if a college is educating its students to think critically and educating them to be informed and active citizens – and those students subsequently vote – then the outcome of the election represents the views of all its citizens, and not just a select few. That is how a strong democracy thrives.

We’ve seen young adults become more civically active in a variety of ways. Many are volunteering in their communities, making their voices and views heard on social media, protesting, boycotting, signing petitions; however, they are not participating in one essential way that is critical to their futures and the future of this country – voting. Colleges and universities must refocus on educating for democratic engagement, and voting needs to become an expected behavior of students and graduates, not just an option.

When a student says he or she is not participating, we need to remind them of the fight others fought for the right to vote. We need to remind them that people in other countries do not have this right. We need to remind them that if they don’t participate, no one will think their views and needs are important - politicians won’t feel compelled to address the issues affecting constituents who are not registered because those citizens won’t be voting anyway.

The current generation of college students has grown up in a world where they can do everything online, 24-7. If something isn’t easy and doesn’t seem worth it, they will simply decide not to do it.

While many perceive encouraging active participation in the electoral process to be a partisan activity, we at the ALL IN Challenge don’t care who a students votes for, as long as he or she votes. And to that end, we shouldn’t be making it more difficult for students to vote, we should be making it easier for them to navigate the system. The current generation of college students has grown up in a world where they can do everything online, 24-7. If something isn’t easy and doesn’t seem worth it, they will simply decide not to do it.

We cannot be okay with this. Young adults can’t wait to get their driver’s license at 16 or 17, and can’t wait to be 21 to legally purchase alcohol. Why is it that they are not excited to participate in their democracy when they turn 18? I think it is because we have not communicated to them why voting is important, and we have not clearly communicated the consequences of not.

Let’s work together to make voting the norm, like recycling has become a norm. If we as a society can learn how recycling is good for the planet, young people can learn that voting is important to their future. Visit our website to learn more about the ALL IN Challenge and to see the list of 150+ college campuses that agree with me. These campuses have made the commitment to improving democratic engagement, increasing student voter participation rates, and graduating informed and active young people. They are committed to doing this every year, not just in election years, and are taking the lead on reducing apathy and instilling critical lifelong behaviors.

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