As predicted, voter turnout for the 2014 Midterm Elections was relatively low this election year with no presidential race to bring people to the polls. On top of that, it appears even turnout on campus is on the decline.
Within the Washtenaw County precincts that surround campus, where students tend to live, average voter turnout per precinct was 14.08 percent this year, down from 17.88 percent in 2010, the last non-presidential election year.
In reality, it is likely that a larger percentage of students living in these areas voted as the number of registered voters is inflated by individuals who are registered in Ann Arbor, but have since moved away, like former students. These individuals can remain registered in Ann Arbor for years before being removed. The figures also do not account for students who voted by absentee ballot in their home district.
Associate History Prof. Matthew Lassiter said though the decline in voters is unfortunate, it is common for younger voters to be less involved in midterm elections than presidential ones.
“I think that most students believe that being active through political parties is less effective then being active through issue based organizations and it’s hard to argue with that analysis,” Lassiter said.
LSA junior Trevor Dolan, president of the University’s chapter of the College Democrats, said there is a small group of politically active students, despite the broader trend of declining participation. He said while many may be passionate about certain issues, fewer are willing to get involved in the political process.
He added that being a member of College Democrats allows him to work on the issues he cares about.
“Single issues are important but by involving yourself in the Democratic or Republican parties you show that you care about a series of issues,” he said.
Dolan said College Democrats have 40 to 50 members who consistently show up to meetings, and many more come sporadically. He said he believes political organizations have failed to show that they can accomplish their goals, many perceiving parties to be solely focused on winning. He added that because of this, students instead choose to join issue-based organizations instead.
“Politics is just composed of all these issues, and I think that when a lot of students think of politics they think about gerrymandering, they think about political gridlock but they don’t think about that what happens in Washington or what happens in Lansing affects them directly and affects the issues that they care about,” Dolan said.
Political Science Prof. Nicholas Valentino said research shows that college students tend to be less partisan while in school, usually identifying and working with one party later on. He said Democratic and Republican party organizers have worked harder recently to recruit college students through grassroots mobilization.
“I think if you wanted to make just the most basic prediction about whether someone is going to participate, the first thing you usually look to is how much did their family participate and how many socio-economic and skills based resources to know how to participate,” Valentino said.
LSA junior Kayla Garthus, vice-president of the University’s chapter of the Young Americans for Liberty, joined the organization during her freshman year and said the diversity of the members has increased in the time she joined.
Young Americans for Liberty is a non-partisan libertarian organization that had 150 chapters nationwide at the end of 2009. That number has increased to 527 today.
Garthus said the organization has a mixture of people with different identities, including Republicans and Democrats. She believes that nonpartisanship has helped the group expand.
“I would say that people are less inclined nowadays to be so politically active due to the unfortunate circumstances involving the government and just political parties,” Garthus said.
LSA senior Sarah Cunningham, secretary of the University’s chapter of College Republicans, said the group is steadily growing stronger and the midterm elections have helped the group gain some attention on campus.
She said students often do not participate in politics because, among other things, they are busy with other priorities.
“A lot of students that I’ve met maybe stray away form being super-involved in political parties because they feel that they have become more polarized or that current representatives don’t represent their beliefs. And I think that’s even more reason to get involved,” Cunningham said.
Business senior Elena Brennan, a senior adviser for the College Republicans, said she does feel that political parties are becoming less popular among young people.
“The College Republicans here at U of M have actually adapted to this by creating a ‘Students For’ position on the board that heads up committees focused on specific issues that are relevant to students — issues that we care about looking towards our futures,” Brennan said.
Like the College Democrats, the College Republicans has roughly 50 members that show up consistently, Brennan said.
Cunningham said another basic determinant for political involvement is being able to conduct a dialogue. She said when students openly identify with a political party, other students assume they will not be open to new ideas.
She added that another factor that keeps students involved with a political group are the friends they make there. As a freshman, Cunningham was an independent but she said she found a lot in common with College Republicans and identified with her peers rather than politicians themselves.