Tip the vote over
More students at the University must use their votes to make informed decisions
When the recent University-wide election results came in, I noticed one number in particular: the voter participation rate. At 40.54 percent, we saw about an 8-point increase in the percentage of the student body that actually ended up submitting a ballot — an achievement many hail as a relative triumph against voter apathy.
In many respects, I agree this voter turnout is a triumph; more people voting should be seen as a good thing. But we must temper our enthusiasm: the fight for a fully engaged student body — and, more broadly, a fully engaged American populace — is far from finished.
An 8 percent increase in voter turnout is something to be celebrated, even if it’s only on the University level. In a country where traditionally 40 percent, or more, of the population does not vote in major elections, any increase in voter turnout, on any scale, for any election, is a step in the right direction.
The recent University-wide contest elected officers to our Student Council, Honor Committee, and Judiciary Committee and held a referendum on major reforms to the way honor operates at the University — in short, very major decisions to be made by the student body. It is encouraging to see that students stepped up at a time when their voices were so earnestly sought.
I would contest the conclusion that University students are deeply engaged with their system, however. In his March 3 piece, “The moral of the story,” second-year Law student Ron Fisher claims that 40 percent voter participation is an “astoundingly high number” that indicates that the student body “cares deeply about honor.” An introductory statistics student could easily tell this is an exaggeration: the more pertinent number is the 60 percent of students who didn’t vote at all. If we focus on the latter number, our conclusion is vastly different: the student body, on the whole, doesn’t care enough about honor — or any of the other major student-run organizations — to take five minutes over four days in order to vote…online. Should we call the cursory attention of 40 percent of the student body evidence of widespread engagement with the issues? Can we really do no better? The honest answer is that we have a long way to go before we can start claiming that the U.Va. student body “cares deeply” about our institutions.
Many will be quick to criticize me for harping on what should be seen as a success. But I refuse to lower my standards just because we have come closer to achieving them. Excuses traditionally allowed for lower participation rates on a national scale — the long lines at polls and the apathy induced by the electoral college — are not present in U.Va.’s student elections. In the past election, students had four days to visit a website, click on bubbles and submit their electronic ballots. This could have even been done in lecture in lieu of Facebook stalking for five minutes, or while eating dinner or before starting to study in the library. The point is that the costs of voting were made negligible, and still our turnout fell significantly short of even 50 percent overall participation. The only reasonable conclusion left is that people just didn’t care enough to take five minutes to vote.
This apathy speaks to the lack of civic engagement apparent in all of American society, especially insofar as our institutions of student self-governance model the governmental institutions of our nation. Though the numbers vary depending on the election, there is a clear decline in voter turnout for presidential elections from 1960 to 2012, from around 60 percent to around 50 percent. Political pundits abound, but they cater to a distinct group of politically inclined citizens; the majority is filled with a sense of indifference or even ambivalence toward their government and their control over it. How many of us can name all the representatives in our states? How about even our district? The answers to these questions would probably embarrass many of us. Our government has more power over us than ever before, but we seem to care less and less about it.
In closing, I want to make one last important point: as much as I believe in encouraging and fostering greater voter participation, we should be sure to encourage informed voting over simply voting. If you don’t know what you’re voting for, and instead you’re merely clicking on random bubbles for the sake of having voted, don’t even bother. The point of the vote is to gauge the voice of the people. We can draw no conclusions from an election in which many of those who voted had little to know idea what they were voting on. Get informed. Know who could be representing you, whether it’s in Congress or in Student Council. And then make a conscious decision. The cost in time and effort is so incredibly low, but the benefits to the communities in which we live are manifold.
Russell Bogue is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.