By Kit Geary
Everywhere you look people are telling students to vote. Check Instagram, check your emails, look at posters around campus, it’s everywhere. There is a huge push for students to vote this year. Why do people want you, a student, to vote, and how do they expect you to make an informed decision amongst the insanity that is the 2020 election?
“Young people in general historically have had a poor record of voting,” said Madeleine Kunin, former governor of Vermont in a recent phone interview. “When I was growing up voting was a privilege, compulsory almost, I wouldn’t think of not voting.”
Two voting organizations have made their way onto campus already. Vermont League of Women Voters gave a presentation to Student Government on Oct. 14. The second, Vermont PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) has worked with groups on campus such as MOVE, Athletics, and CAN! to encourage students to register.
These groups approached campus for a different reason. “The League of Women Voters is an extremely non-partisan group, their goal is to maximize the participation of voting and ensure elections work the way they should,” said Patricia Siplon, Professor of Political Science at St. Michael’s. “On the other hand, PIRG is an activist group that promotes progressive public policy and they are very interested in maximizing the student vote because students tend to be more to the left on various issues.”
In 2016 the U.S. saw a 48.3 percent student voter turnout according to a study done by Tufts University. Two years later in the 2018 midterm election, there was an increase in student voting. It looked like students were actually exercising their right to vote this time around. Candidates ran their campaigns all over the country, trying to engage students.
Fast forward to fall 2020, we are in a pandemic and campaigns can no longer be run the same. Debates are drastically different from past years. People are voting through the mail at rates like never before and the phrase “I don’t want to vote for either candidate” has made a reappearance from the 2016 election.
“I would say it’s something we hear about every election cycle when we look at the overall demographics of voters. Younger people are always less represented in the voter turnout demographic than people in the older age brackets,” said Michael Dougherty, digital editor for VTDigger. The encouragement for young people to vote is not a new concept and has taken many different forms throughout the nation’s elections. “I remember when I was younger and MTV was much more prevalent there was the whole Rock the Voter campaign, this was a TV and concert based initiative that got artists to talk younger demographics into going to the polls.”
While the push for student voting has gone full steam ahead, campaign events where students can get information from politicians directly have fizzled out.
“People may not realize politics is actually a very social activity. COVID has made it so we don’t spend the same amount of time with people and as a result more and more information is coming from online,” Siplon said. Student voters are left up to their own devices to inform themselves.
“This year we are seeing way fewer campaign events than we usually would. VTDigger has a voter guide to try and remedy that, yet it’s created a challenge for us as people who are trying to get information out there to voters,” Doughtery said. Currently Fox News and CNN take the lead for the most visited sites for election news, according to a study done by the Pew Research Center.
“Democracy itself is being evaluated in this election, the keyword now in politics is ‘divisive,’” said Madeleine Kunin, whose political career began in the 1970s. She has been a governor, deputy secretary of education under the Clinton administration, a member of the Vermont House of Representatives, and the U.S. ambassador to her native country, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein. Through her multiple political ventures Kunin has seen a plethora of political landscapes, and said this current one is like no other. “When I started politics in the 70s and 80s Democrats and Republicans talked to each other and worked together sometimes,” Kunin said.
“This is an extraordinarily polarized election, people feel incredibly strongly about it on both sides. People want to get out the vote for their side,” Siplon said. The divisiveness of this political climate has caused widespread fear and uncertainty. “The president has cast doubt on the outcome of the election… if there’s a low turnout and the results are indecisive then it will be easier for him to argue that there are problems with the election.”
“The more young people that vote, they set a new pattern and a new expectation, I am encouraged in 2020 by the apparent voter turnout, I just hope that every vote will be counted,” Kunin said. “There’s so much at stake for young people.”