There is no shortage of political discourse on Georgetown’s campus. The popularity of the government major and minor is a testament to the political culture on campus. The university has consistently hosted political speakers including Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and Bill Clinton with students lining up to enter Gaston Hall hours before the events. Many students also engage in political activism and intern on the Hill. In many ways, it is impossible to be a Georgetown student and be removed from the political process.
However, as the data has revealed, college students nationally are the least likely demographic to vote. According to U.S. Census Bureau voting data, young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 have voted at lower rates than all other age groups in every presidential election since 1962, with less than half of eligible young adult voters casting a vote.
Young adult voters could have a huge impact on the election of our political leaders, but this impact is contingent upon turnout. Beyond raw numbers, young voters also have a powerful impact on the issues discussed during election seasons. They have the power to drive headlines, dominate social media, organize and mobilize their communities and raise funds. Furthermore, Rock the Vote and NBC News found that millennials aged 18 to 33 are the most racially diverse generation in U.S. history: 61 percent of millennials identify as white, 17 percent as Hispanic, 15 percent as black and 4 percent as Asian. This range of political viewpoints and experiences speaks to the potential of our democracy to represent an incredibly diverse perspective if that population were to be meaningfully engaged.
Theories and explanations abound to explain the lack of voter participation among college students. Experts argue that college students often don’t feel like they have a stake in a particular city or community and are thus less likely to register to vote. Many young people reportedly abstain from voting because of strong feelings of apathy and general disillusionment with politics. Many campaigns also tend to cater their message to older voters, who consistently turn out to vote in high numbers; as a result, Social Security, the economy and foreign policy take the fore over “social issues” which, according to political analysts, tend to be more important to college voters.
Any discussion of low voter turnout among college students, however, must be far more nuanced than the cliche argument that young people have no faith in the political process and are solely concerned with gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana. Such stereotypes are not only lazy and dismissive, but also lose sight of the real obstacles that make voter registration a challenge not only for young people, but also for workers, communities of color and other groups across the country. College students face many practical challenges with voter registration, having to rely upon overburdened, underfunded and outdated systems to register out of state or to request absentee ballots. Many new voters simply don’t know how or where to register and might be unaware of registration deadlines. States vary widely in their rules regarding registering for primaries, requirements for identification and whether or not same-day or election-day registration is available. In some cases, college students even face deliberate efforts to suppress the young vote, such as decisions by North Carolina county election boards in 2014 that required voters to present photo identification, ended same-day voter registration and contributed to the disenfranchisement of college students. As college students at a university, that places such heavy emphasis on political engagement, we should care about efforts at other colleges, which might separate students from the democratic process.
Colleges and universities are uniquely situated to help clarify this process. At Georgetown, the College Democrats and College Republicans student groups have held events in the past helping students register to vote, along with specific student campaign groups such as Hoyas for Hillary and GU Students for Rubio. Other easily accessible resources, such as Rock the Vote and the Campus Vote Project, provide information about the voter registration rules in each state and links to register.
Our education and numerous political opportunities at Georgetown compel us not only to be aware, but to act. No amount of discussions, panels, events or debate watches on campus can substitute for actual participation in the political process. As a Jesuit community, we are called not to engage in abstract intellectual exercises merely for the sake of knowledge, but to translate our knowledge into concrete action within the political community. By actively engaging with political life on the local, state and national levels, we embody the call to community and participation, one of the seven core themes of Catholic social teaching.
Youth voter turnout is of particular concern given the historic implications of the 2016 presidential elections, in which both parties will decide among fundamentally different visions of the future, with long-term implications for the national political landscape. Furthermore, the issues upon which this election will turn are the issues that impact young people most directly: the massive debt loads of college graduates, the ability of young and working people to access health care and above all else, the economic prospects of the first generation not to be guaranteed a better life than their parents. Endlessly discussing and debating these issues does nothing to change them. Only concrete political action can address these injustices, and this action must include voting among young people.
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