2020 has been consequential, to say the least. COVID-19 — a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic — has had painful effects on the economy, revealed structural issues in the American healthcare system and highlighted inequities in education. Movements against systemic racial inequality have been reinvigorated, and wildfires have demonstrated the dangers posed by climate change. All of these variables and more have been recognized by voters across the country as threats to the unity of American democracy. In the midst of this political and social turmoil, students and faculty members have shared their outlook on what voting means to them and why it matters, especially for this Election Day.
According to Sidney Michael Milkis, White Burkett Miller professor in the Department of Politics and senior fellow at the Miller Center, voting at the polls is a civic duty for Americans and an election represents “the soul of the country.” This belief in civic responsibility is what has been driving him to the polls to cast his ballot.
“I like to go to the polls,” Milkis said. “I like to soak it in because I think voting is an important part of being a citizen in the country … [and] an important part of our civic culture. We're such an individualistic society that one of the few communal activities we have is voting.”
Third-year College student Emily Moosher echoed this sentiment, adding that voting allows people to have their voices heard.
“I think what drove me [to the polls] — aside from it being the first presidential election I could vote in — was just experiencing the last four years and knowing that I would have the chance and opportunity to have my voice heard and have influence in the next four years,” Moosher said.
Additionally, students like fourth-year College student Marjan Saud have identified the importance of utilizing political advocacy to keep politicians accountable for the resolutions they have promised.
“People have to hold politicians accountable for their actions because they unfortunately cannot always be trusted in properly representing their constituents or passing necessary policies,” Saud said. “It is the responsibility of the government to take care of its citizens, but accountability must be placed at the forefront of concerns over the success of that government and its role to serve the people it represents.”
Some students, including fourth-year Architecture student Molly Nealon, believe that the events that have culminated over this past year have created an important turning point in history — a time when one’s vote may matter more than ever. Additionally, the drastically different visions provided by former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump demonstrate the significance of this election’s outcome to the future direction of the U.S.
“America, and the rest of the world frankly, is at a turning point, and this election is providing us an opportunity to say in which direction we want to move forward,” Nealon said. “As we have been continuously reminded over the past few months of the issues we face surrounding social justice, health care and climate change, this election will have lasting impacts on the world.”
While these students and faculty emphasize that voting is a democratic privilege and right, many Americans have become resigned to the process. Common reasons that Americans do not vote include indifference to the political process itself and low political efficacy — the perception that one’s vote does not matter and cannot impact broader government policies. The 2016 election appeared to highlight this voter apathy, as only 55.7 percent of the U.S. voting age population cast ballots. But Politics Assoc. Prof. Justin Kirkland argues that, actually, there is little evidence to back up the claim that “my vote doesn’t matter.”
“We just don't have a lot of evidence that individual votes don't matter,” Kirkland said. “There's lots of evidence that individual votes don't switch elections ... but [votes] universally send signals to candidates about whether their country wants more liberal or conservative policy, whether we want the Republicans to have greater power or whether we want the Democrats to have greater power.”
Despite this trend of voter apathy, news media sources like CNN are predicting a possible record-breaking voter turnout this 2020 presidential election. Third-year College student Sidney Stephens hypothesized that the increased turnout may be due to effects of social distancing. As people are stuck at home with limited things to do, many have chosen to dedicate their attention to the political events decorating their news screens and social media feeds.
“I think a lot of people are intellectually bored this year, especially because we have been void of a lot of social interaction,” Stephens said. “We're kind of looking for something to channel our brain power to, and being informed on the candidates and the hot topics that have kind of been something to look to. I think living in a pandemic and witnessing the events and the ongoing events of the BLM [movement], we want better, so we're being driven to vote because that's kind of one of the easiest avenues that constituents have to have a voice in government.”
Particularly, due to COVID-19, Americans are increasingly choosing to vote via mail rather than in person as a safe and contact-free voting method. In fact, according to NBC12, Virginia absentee voting numbers are over four times higher than in the 2016 election, as more than 2.7 million Virginians have already voted. However, its effects are not evenly distributed across demographic groups, as mail-in voting remains inaccessible for certain populations. For example, mail-in ballots from voters of color have been disproportionately flagged for rejection, which is not a new problem and has continued this election season.
Moving forward, professors at the University encourage students to participate to increase young voter turnout rates, which are historically lower than other age groups. According to work on voter turnout rates by John Holbein, Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy assistant professor, researchers have found that young voters know just as much about politics as older voters do, but restrict themselves because they believe that they lack confidence to participate in politics.
“We need to do a better job at educating young voters about … their capability of voting, Kirkland said. “That they're perfectly capable in participating in politics but they think that they're not. They believe themselves to be under qualified to vote, so they don't show up to vote even though they know just as much about politics as the people who are voting.”
According to Stephens, democracy requires full participation in order to be effective. With that being said, University professors and students stress the importance of participation in the political process and the difference a vote can make when a community contributes together. Despite all of the social and political divisiveness leading up to the election, Milkis shares a reminder of unity and what it means to be as American.
“I believe what makes the country special — what America is at its best — is this never ending pursuit of a more perfect union,” Milkis said. “A union not made up of people of the same color or born in the same place, but all deriving a sense of America from this basic understanding of the individual pursuit of happiness. Americans have different views on what that means and we've fought over different views of what that means and it's changed overtime. But to me, that's what really … it is to be what is an American.”