As another academic year got underway at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, the Student Activities Fair was bustling with over 60 clubs and organizations signing up students and distributing information on a sunny Friday afternoon. While students had a wide variety of organizations to choose from, there were a few tables that received a great deal of foot traffic throughout the day. In other years these tables might not have received much attention, but unless you've been living under a rock with no access to Internet or cable news, then you know this year is an election year. Perhaps reflecting the closely projected race, the Romney and Obama bumper stickers and posters were flying off the tables as Stonehill College's political clubs geared up for a new year. Between the College Democrats and Republicans and Young Americans for Liberty, students had a variety of political organizations to align themselves with. The interest and desire to be involved with a political group was certainly present on that beautiful afternoon, but the ultimate question is whether or not this political curiosity and awareness will transpire into the actual practice of voting.
The voting power of young adults certainly exists; the issue has now just become a question of action. According to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, 46 million young people ages 18-29 are eligible to vote in 2012. Eleven million of these young voters are currently enrolled in college and are between the ages of 18-24. It is well known that young voters turned out in record numbers in the 2008 election at 51 percent, but these numbers are not nearly as high as they are for voters over 30. What stops youth from voting? CIRCLE examines this issue in detail just as many political scientists and campaigns have dedicated time and energy and money to solving this problem as well. As a person who is both a youth voter and a college student, the non-empirically based answer seems quite easy: convenience. Sure, in the ideal democracy all citizens would treat the right to vote with the seriousness and respect it deserves. An entire research paper could certainly be written on the historical, social, and civic reasons why most Americans don't hold such a view. The point is that many college students feel so overwhelmed by exams, research papers, extracurricular activities, and finding a few precious hours of sleep time that nobody really considers making the trek back to the hometown to vote. Forget taking the time over the summer to send in for an absentee ballot, it's just not on the average student's radar. Since the overwhelming majority of college students have never owned a home, never worried about the mortgage, or have never been fired from a job when the company was downsizing, many economic issues that push our parents and the baby boomer generation to vote have not fully materialized on our radar yet. Many of the students I have talked with at school mention social issues such as gay rights, the environment, and health care as areas that are most important to them. But still, they don't vote. Despite proclaiming an interest, being passionate about issues, and picking a political fight or two, we still don't vote. Is there a solution?
I would argue that colleges and universities have a responsibility in encouraging their students to take action. For many students, it simply isn't possible to travel to their home districts to vote. The Stonehill College political clubs and the Martin Institute for Law and Society have worked diligently to address this issue. This year at the activities fair, the College Democrats signed up a brand new voter and collected ten absentee ballots for Massachusetts residents in just a few hours! Beginning next week, students will have the opportunity to attend "office hours" at the Martin Institute and fill out an absentee ballot. Students can register to vote for the first time as well. The ultimate responsibility of voting lies with the student who must mail back the ballot, but there is considerable help along the way to make the process as easy as possible. With a mail room on campus that sells stamps, there is no excuse for Stonehill students not to vote! This is surely an initiative that colleges across the country could adapt and if they already have such programs, promotion and easy access for students is a key aspect. With so much at stake this election, the youth vote and voice is a crucial one that must be heard.