As today marks the final day to register to vote in Tennessee, voter engagement and voter registration volunteers are popping up across campus. With clipboards and tablets in hand, these moderately irritating champions of civic engagement interrupt your brisk walks to class by yelling, sometimes forcefully, “Are you registered to vote?”
As one of these self-proclaimed good Samaritans who disrupts your day and in turn makes you late to your own midterm exam, I recognize that registering to vote might feel like just another action item to put on an already over-programmed schedule. However, given the resources on campus, registering to vote as a college student is easier than ever.
As of December 2017, 37 states and the District of Columbia offer online voter registration options with a valid driver’s license or state-issued identification card. While many people still face significant obstacles obtaining state-issued identification, the shift to an online system simplifies the process for students. In cases where you might not have identification cards or where your state fails to offer online registration, resources like TurboVote.org, Rock the Vote, and Vanderbilt’s Office of Active Citizenship and Engagement leverage the powers of computerized government record keeping and the world wide web to guide registrants through a step by step registration process.
Despite all of these internet and technology based tools, college students remain much less likely to vote compared to older, and statistically less tech savvy, generations. The latest report from the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement estimates that college student voter turnout increased by a modest three percent between 2012 and 2016. This increase from 45.1 percent to 48.3 percent turnout represents progress in getting students to the polls, but the fact that less than half of college students vote in presidential election years is concerning. On the other hand, Baby Boomers and Generation Z trounced college students with 68.7 percent and 62.6 percent turnout in 2016, respectively. Even more disappointingly, only 18 percent of eligible college age students voted in the 2014 midterms. On the whole, we as college students forgo the opportunity—and the right—to vote far too often.
So why do students who seem to be a population so immersed in education and community fail to register and turnout to vote? The Economist grapples with this problem, explaining that “young people today do not feel they have much of a stake in society.” Our tendencies to put off property ownership and delay starting a family prevent us from having “direct interest in how schools and hospitals are run, and whether parks and libraries are maintained.” In my experiences registering voters on Vanderbilt’s campus, marriage, property ownership, and lack of stake in the game tend not to come up in conversation. More often, students emphasize that a vote in a predominantly blue or predominantly red community is worthless. Others insist that all things political are too dirty, disorganized, and dysfunctional to warrant their input.
If you refuse to vote because your district or state is too red or too blue, look into your local ballot initiatives. Local elections involve much more nuance than “red” or “blue.” There are over 89,000 local governments in the United States, and each has its own elected or appointed representatives. Local governments determine a large portion of civilian daily life, from education policy, policing, and safety regulations to drug and alcohol ordinances and public transit. Even if your district or state leans heavily in one partisan direction, voting on the local level influences how particular parties and representatives make policy in your own community. Furthermore, you should jump at the opportunity to vote in local elections where low turnout rates make individual votes more impactful—so much so that one vote decided seven local issues on an Ohio county ballot in 2014. Alternatively, if you have a federal I.D., register to vote in Tennessee today, and vote in two of the most competitive Senate and Governor’s races in the country.
If you refuse to vote because you believe that no vote or no candidate can overcome the corruption and complications of the political system, I level with your concerns, but voting remains the best direct way to influence government. As current college students, we have grown up and matured in an age of modern terrorism, constant war, great recession, continuing discrimination, and political polarization. Our two decades on earth give us legitimate reason to distrust our institutions, and they give us some reason to disengage from politics. However, past political and governmental failures do not give us adequate reason to dismiss our right to vote. To the contrary, they prove how pertinent it is that we engage with the imperfect system that governs us in hope, but not in expectation, of perfecting that system.
Information regarding registration and absentee ballot requests is at your fingertips. You can and should be more than a disappointing statistic. And most of all, your vote matters. So, the next time you fast walk past a few moderately irritating champions of civic engagement questioning if you are registered to vote, you better answer with an honest and resounding “yes.”