Voter turnout. These two words have come to symbolize the increasing disillusionment and distrust people feel toward democratic governments, illustrated by the plummeting numbers recorded at recent elections. When students are added to the fray, the issue takes on the characteristics of a long-term puzzle for which few people hold the pieces.
Students form one of the most important election demographics for the simple reason that most of them are undecided as to their political leanings when they come of voting age. Furthermore, research shows graduates end up voting for the same side of the aisle they first voted for in college, if at all.
As more students disengage from the political process, candidates are elected into office without the consent or mandate of the majority of the population.
The factors contributing to this state of affairs is as complicated as it is numerous, and only increases as the issue is viewed from different perspectives. Speaking to Charlie Hoffmann, chairman of the University of Wisconsin-Madison College Republicans, it immediately becomes apparent that despite major efforts to mobilize students on campus, falling voter turnout gives him little reason to be optimistic.
“A number of students have their residency in their hometowns, which means that they can’t vote here,” Hoffmann said.
He explained how ineligibility cultivates a culture of indifference while right-leaning students are discouraged from exhibiting their political colors.
“The campus is largely left-leaning and Republican students feel their voice won’t be heard,” Hoffmann said. He added organizations such as his strive to give students an outlet for conservative dialogue, ensuring students do not feel ideologically alone.
Seeing as the core problems stem from residency restrictions and a lack of interest in local politics, making it easier to transfer residency along with better strategies to involve students locally could solve the problem to a large extent, if not fully.
However, politics are taking a different direction according to Zachary Madden of United Wisconsin, a pro-democracy interest group.
“The last four years under the Walker administration and the attacks on voting, specifically making it much more difficult for students to vote, is a large piece of the problem,” Madden said. “The Republicans know that students overwhelmingly vote for the Democrats and thus the GOP has fought back, and they’ve done a pretty good job of it.”
Madden also called attention to the time and resources presidential candidates have at their disposal compared to city and county candidates. The employment of those resources leads to higher turnout among students and the general public.
“I know that United Wisconsin, and all the other progressive groups, will do all they can to ensure that students have all the information they need to make a well informed decision when casting their ballot,” Madden said of the upcoming gubernatorial elections.
Despite educational campaigns, disinterest still persists. On a campus of 40,000, voices of politically engaged students are drowned by the oppressive silence that surrounds them.
Perhaps the situation is not as bad as it seems.
The spring 2014 Associated Students of Madison elections saw a turnout of 34.4 percent. When compared to the 15 percent turnout for the same election in 2013, we see a brighter picture. On the other hand, turnout for the city council election for 2014 was lower than anticipated, averaging a mere 14 percent of eligible voters.
Finding a trend is especially difficult, since every election has its own unique characteristics, such as local ballots with referendums.
Another major facet of the lack of student turnout is communication, according to Chris Wells, an assistant professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Wells said he is not happy with the current media environment.
“People will certainly encounter political information regularly, but whether their media environment is rich in the kinds of information that informs them well and make them clear about opportunities to express themselves, I don’t think that’s clear at all,” Wells said.
He added the amount of coverage local politicians receive is pitiful compared to those in Washington D.C., which leads to mass disparities in voter turnout between local and presidential elections.
Wells also praised the use of social media, especially in President Obama’s 2012 campaign, mentioning local politicians need to step up their social networking game, if they are hoping to break into the 18 to 25 age bracket.
Having heard the entire mainstream issues affecting students and their voting habits, I hoped UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden, an expert in these matters, could define the root cause of student voter apathy. I realized there is none.
Like Hoffmann, Burden explained students are “likely to move around more than other voters,” thus making it more difficult to maintain residency in any one state, or even one country.
Burden related this to students’ lack of interest in politics of a particular area and in general.
“Students are more likely to stay independent, and we know that independents don’t vote as much,” Burden said. “Students also feel that they don’t belong to either side in politics, and it takes a long time for them to develop this sense.”
When asked about the effects of voter ID laws and attacks on voting in general, Burden was dismissive, explaining students were more apt to register and vote on election day itself anyway.
Burden also touched on the effects of communication, saying politicians still campaigned using television and radio to a disproportionate extent.
“There is a high chance that a 20-year-old will miss this because he or she does not watch television, only older people do,” he said.
Burden’s final point, however, is a key factor in student voter apathy.
“Politicians target older people because they tend to vote more, and vice versa for students,” Burden said. “Due to this lack of targeting, students vote less, which leads to a self-perpetuating vicious cycle that continues on and on.”
The situation, as it stands currently, is a result of decades of disengagement between youth and their governing political establishment. A combination of communication problems, voting restrictions, civic engagement and even a vicious cycle are to blame for the current voting figures for the 18 to 25 age bracket. Is this a problem? Are we going to do anything about it? You decide.