College students aren’t known for their overwhelming turnout on Election Day. Yet, while young people can rightly be called out for their electoral apathy, colleges can and should do more to encourage civic engagement. The University shouldn’t force students to choose between cramming for an exam worth 30 percent of their grade and exercising their democratic right to vote, as was the case for some on Nov. 4, 2008. To prevent this from happening again, the Michigan Student Assembly passed a resolution calling on the University to ban exams on national election days. But it is imperative that MSA also push for similar bans in the cases of state and local elections.
18- to 24-year olds were the least likely to vote of any age group on Nov. 4, 2008, with approximately 48 percent participating, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. In response to the low turnout, MSA recently passed a resolution to encourage the Board of Regents to prohibit exams on national election days. Originally proposed by MSA’s Voice Your Vote Commission, the resolution cited long lines at the polls as a primary deterrent for students because many students needed to prepare for exams that took place on Election Day. It also pointed to a finding by Rock the Vote, a national organization that encourages voter participation, which concluded that poorly scheduled exams caused voting problems at the University.
Admittedly, students can do better. Even in as exciting an election year as 2008, less than half of all 18- to 24-year olds made it to the polls. Even in the most recent MSA election, which has arguably the most direct impact on University students, voter participation was only a dismal 9 percent — and that election was held entirely online. That can’t all be attributed to schedule conflicts. Students should make voting a priority — even if it means they have to brave standing in line.
Yet as ironic as it may seem for MSA to advise anyone on increasing voter turnout, the Voice Your Vote Commission proposal could actually boost voter attendance. Any action that removes potential barriers to exercising one’s voice in government is a no-brainer — especially when it won’t have any serious impact on education or cause faculty any real undue pain.
Considering the current social and political climate, it has never been more important for students to vote. But national elections aren’t the only elections that matter to students. State and local elections have at least as much say in shaping the lives of University students as federal ones, but generally they see even lower student voter turnout and involvement. And involving students in local politics would cultivate a greater sense of city ownership, making them more likely to care about improving the city in which they live.
No one denies that young people need to take greater responsibility for voting seriously and consistently. But the University has a responsibility to make civic engagement as accessible as possible. Voting is simply too important to the integrity of a democratic government to allow barriers to stand in its way.