Students’ voices quieted by voting apathy

By Larissa Gula

Students are the invested, but uninvolved.

Specifically, they’re not involved in politics… Students are the invested, but uninvolved.

Specifically, they’re not involved in politics the way prior generations have been. Though members of this generation continually take up causes to change the world, it’s still missing one crucial factor in affecting politics: voting. Consequently, politicians often pass it by.

Although she fundraises for local causes through her sorority, Delta Delta Delta, and is considering volunteering for Planned Parenthood, senior Caity Garvey doubts she’ll vote in the upcoming presidential election.

The English writing and history major voted in the 2008 presidential election along with a record number of her classmates, but lately she finds herself avoiding politics, even though she feels she should be more involved. Bluntly stated, voting feels “pointless.”

“I do not think we’re apathetic when it comes to our communities and when it comes to what we want to gain in our lives,” Garvey said about students. “But I definitely think we’re apathetic toward the voting process.”

The Difference Between Young and Old

Garvey’s mindset is increasingly the norm among potential young voters, said Russell Dalton, a professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine.

“Young people are typically less politically engaged [than adults] because they are busy with school, finding a partner, getting a job and so forth,” Dalton said in an email.

Dalton explained that there are some crucial differences in how the youth view politics compared to their parents’ generation. For example, he said that young people are more likely to criticize all politicians rather than vote based on a party alliance.

Pitt sociology professor Jackie Smith said that this fits in with what many view as a problem with the current polarized two-party system, where difficulty compromising on important issues makes policy difficult. Additionally, the recent rise in corporate and lobbyist power has also resulted in politicians focusing more on the people funding their campaigns and less on the American people, she said.

“To run for office and have an impact on voting, politicians have to appeal to corporate interests, and that further narrows the options and discussion,” Smith said. “If people don’t hear things of interest to them being discussed, they’re less likely to participate in politics.” This creates disconnect among all voters, especially students.

This often means less student representation at the polls.

In 2000, the youth-voter turnout — ages 18 to 24 — reached 36 percent. In the 2004 and 2008 elections, the numbers for that group spiked to 47 and 51 percent, respectively, according to Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, a nonprofit civic action research group. But participation fell in 2010 to 20.9 percent.

That falls well short of the voter turnout of the general population as well. In 2000, 51 percent of Americans over 18 voted; in 2004 it was 55 percent, according to the American Presidency Project, an online database from the University of California, Santa Barbara. In the highest youth turnout year, 2008, 55 percent of the eligible population voted, according to the database.

While Dalton believes that students should vote and be involved in choosing the leaders that shape America’s policies, he’s not surprised by the low youth-voter turnouts.

“Rather than just a sign of disinterest, it may also be a sign that young people are turned off by the nature of partisan politics,” Dalton said. “Watching Washington these days, this seems like a realistic perspective rather than apathy.”

The Changing Climate for Student Involvement

Government, policy and campaign tactics these days are far different from politics of the past. Smith said that several factors over time have created a culture that largely discourages youth involvement in politics. While many point to the ’60s and ’70s as the height of student political involvement, Smith said that it’s pointless to compare now to then.

“The system is very different in the range of political discussion,” Smith said. For starters, few politicians speak to students directly about issues, making the youth less inclined to feel involved in politics or to vote, she said.

Despite these factors and the mixed responses to politics among college students, Oakland is usually rife with people asking students to register to vote in the fall. Additionally, student groups such as the Pitt College Democrats and Pitt College Republicans are filled with students who consider it their civic duty to vote and even campaign for the politicians they support.

Smith considers it “normal for students in this age group to not be thinking about the larger society” and to grow more involved in the process later in life.

But there’s undoubtedly political involvement at Pitt. Aside from the booths and fundraisers directed toward social causes, senior Richard Hill, public relations director for the Pitt College Republicans, noted that more students have attended the group’s meetings since the GOP debates began. He believes the larger turnouts demonstrate an interest in current issues.

“I think there’s actually a political culture at Pitt, but it doesn’t translate into numbers,” Hill said. “I also think social causes are very visible on campus. So while [student] political groups just table, there are social causes who do outreach more often and who do special projects. I think those are more visible than political parties.”

Lara Sullivan, president of the Pitt College Democrats, agreed, stating in an email that while there will always be some apathetic students, many do get involved somehow.

“I believe that students express their views on politics and the country by other means than simply voting: by participating in clubs involving social movements important to them, volunteering in the community and even participating in demonstrations and protests,” she said.

And considering how politics works, this disinterest in voting is not that surprising, according to Matthew DiFiore, a past Pitt College Democrats president who graduated in December.

“Voting is no guarantee that the actions that you want done will get done, since the entire government is made from checks and balances,” he said. “From social movement perspectives, it’s much more effective to use grassroots efforts and protests to demand change.”

Where Are the Young Voters?

For many students, efforts toward change come in the form of tackling specific issues. Freshman Gabrielle Joyce is currently involved in Pitt’s chapter of FeelGood where she educates others about poverty and hunger issues. She said she feels as if she’s raising awareness in a way that could potentially make a positive impact on the issue. Still, she feels disconnected from politics.

“If politics was like that, where people went out and fixed or created things, maybe I’d be more active,” she said. “But politics are inflexible in a world where you need to be flexible.”

This is a catch-22 that students acknowledge: If students don’t vote, politicians will continue to consider them to be apathetic and won’t address them.

Voter turnout for most age groups is rarely “high,” but there’s a major difference between how generations engage in politics. Those who use the Internet as part of their lives — particularly students — are able to respond through these platforms, Dalton said. He said this presents an opportunity for young people to change politics by forcing politicians to acknowledge them in ways they didn’t have to previously.

For example, now students can make their voices heard through Internet petitions, which allow citizens to weigh in without sending a letter, making a phone call or marching in Washington.

But students seem to prefer these methods over voting..Students like Sullivan and Hill work with their groups to get students like Garvey and Joyce to vote.

“Voting is the simplest form of expressing one’s opinion of the current state of politics,” she said. “I believe that many people, especially young people, do not vote because they simply do not feel informed enough about the issues to make a decision on candidates.”

To help inform their classmates, political student groups table around campus and hold screenings, debates and discussions about political candidates more often during elections. They aim to encourage their classmates to vote and offer resources to help students feel less overwhelmed by the political process.

Students like Joyce, though, still don’t plan on voting this year.

“I think a lot of my friends and I, as freshmen, don’t feel that inclined to get involved,” she said. “We’re still worried about picking majors more than anything.”