Action Project

Cardinal View: Civic engagement is more than presidential voting

With primary season in full swing, students should turn their attention to local elections.

With primary season in full swing, students should turn their attention to local elections.

Image By: Wil Gibb and Wil Gibb

Election season is once again upon us.

We’ve been inundated with presidential election coverage since last summer and have seen a particularly volatile cycle unfold over the past several months. Candidates on both sides have appealed to populist sentiments, and there has been no shortage of personal attacks between potential nominees.

There is a certain aura of discontent surrounding this election, especially among young voters who have grown disgruntled with establishment politics and radical alternatives. Make no mistake, however—a prevailing sense of political skepticism is no excuse not to vote.

Population changes in the U.S. have made the youth vote an essential portion of the national electorate. A 2013 report by the Pew Research Center projects millennials, defined as those between the ages of 18 and 33, will make up 36.5 percent of the electorate by 2020, an increase from their 25.5 percent share in 2013.

Both political parties are looking for new ways to appeal to our growing age demographic. Whether these tactics have been successful so far is up for debate, but it’s clear politicians will need to place greater emphasis on issues we find important in the coming years, since our vote will have a powerful impact on who holds office.

However, while presidential elections may inspire many of us to become politically engaged, true political engagement does not come once every four years.

“The farther the distance in terms of federal level, the farther the distance in terms of people’s capacities to affect anything,” said Connie Flanagan, a professor in the School of Human Ecology whose research specializes in youth political participation.

In other words, city, county and state politicians have far greater influence on localized aspects of certain issues than the president. Voting consistently at these levels ensures that we elect officials who have much more direct effect on our daily lives.

National elections are easier to participate in. The candidates are more well-known and media coverage is far more salient. Voting in local elections requires some motivation to educate ourselves about these races.

However, the trade-off is worth it. Looking at our Facebook and Twitter feeds, many of our friends may blame national politics for local issues. Taking action in local elections can alleviate this divide and move us away from the passive, armchair activism of social media.

Certainly social media has given youth voters a valuable trove of information, one that is accessible at our fingertips. It’s a conversation we can easily participate in to voice our opinions. But being politically active on social media and not following through with voting creates a huge disconnect.

“Voting is where you actually have some power over the people that represent us,” said political science professor Kathy Cramer. “You can write all the letters and emails and tweets you want, but the thing that actually gets elected officials to behave in a certain way is voting them in or out of office.”

While this premise seems obvious, our generation has not acted on it in recent years. Less than 25 percent of eligible voters age 18-29 participated in the 2010 and 2014 midterms, according to a 2014 NPR article. Even in the presidential election years of 2008 and 2012, the same age group only voted at a 52 percent and 45 percent rate, respectively.

Still, there is reason to believe young voters will soon become much more active at the polls. Historically, more people vote as they get older and realize all the nuanced ways government affects their lives. Even when baby boomers first became eligible, they turned out at essentially the same rate as millennials currently do. Baby boomers now participate at about a 67 percent rate in recent presidential elections.

But there’s no reason to wait until we’re older to vote. We will feel the biggest effects of long-term political change, change that is gradually taking place now at multiple levels of government.

Millennials have shown a penchant for protest and demonstration, building on themes of political activism of generations before us. We have taken it a step further by using social media to mobilize and spread the word regarding certain issues.

Now, we need to make our voices heard at the ballot box. Other forms of civic engagement do no good if we are not making the effort to vote. Our commitment to politics cannot afford to die this November when the new president is elected, and keeping it alive starts with the simple act of casting votes.

“You have to exercise this right because there’s all kinds of forces that are trying to take it away,” Cramer said. “This is yours, exercise it, otherwise it’s going to be gone.”

How do you feel about voting in the upcoming election? Do students need to focus on local elections first? Send all comments and concerns to

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