Student political groups battle Williams stereotype of apathy on campus

Today is Election Day and, since most of us are upstanding citizens of voting age, brainwashed by MTV’s Rock the Vote campaign, the question on all of our minds should be, “where, when and how can we get to the nearest voting booth?” However, judging by what most people call Williams students’ political apathy, the questions most likely on people’s minds are, “what’s for lunch?” or, “what was I supposed to read for class again?”

Despite this discouraging condition, there are three different political groups on campus which contribute to campus activism. They are the Voter Information Service, the Garfield Republicans, and the Williams College Democrats.

For Porter McConnell ’00, founder of the service-oriented, non-partisan Voter Information Service, Election Day is a day for which she and her other six volunteers have been actively preparing during the past couple of weeks. They’ve tried to attract publicity and student interest, passing out voter registration sheets and absentee voting packets in Baxter mail room at lunch.

The idea for the group grew from Project VoteSmart, a national organization which provides free candidate information to both Republican and Democratic voters. “The Voter Information Service is more interested in voting than in who does or doesn’t win,” McConnell said. “We just want more people to vote.”

In addition to encouraging students to vote, the Voter Information Service does what its name states. Upon request, volunteers provide in-depth research on specific candidates or issues in any election.

Not only do their information packets include contributions, budget analyses, etc., but they also include the websites used — so that hopefully students can learn where to find this information on their own in the future.

During the past two months the Voter Information Service has helped 200-250 students learn more about the canidates running in their local elections. The popularity of the service and a shortage of volunteers, has made it difficult to provide a detailed response to all information inquiries and have often had to respond to inquiries with just a list of websites.

Believing that it is important for citizens to be aware of the performance of their political representatives, Voter Information Service also provides information regarding government officials’ voting records and other pertinent facts.

Most volunteers do not have weekly meetings, because the Voter Information Service does not want to fall into the trap of becoming a social club. When asked when they meet, McConnell responded “when we need to.” In the same manner the group provides information when the students need it, so whether an election is going on or not, this free resource is available to all students at all times.

The Garfield Republicans and the Williams College Democrats are both intrested in getting more students to vote, but unlike the Voter Information Service they are also intrested in getting students to vote for their respective parties. For these two political organizations, party loyalty is of enough importance to necessitate two similar organizations with completely different agendas.

The Garfield Republicans comprise 15-20 Republicans who regularly attend meetings in the Gibson Room on Thursdays. These individuals are as concerned with current events as they are with political issues and philosophy. They range in political attitude from the purely fiscal conservative to the libertarian.

In their meetings, the Republicans regularly discuss readings and speeches by various thinkers. Chris Stephan ’99, Garfield Republican co-president, sees a great value in this sharing of knowledge. “I may not take certain classes, such as a Classics course, but others might,” he said. “They might find something really interesting that they want all of us to read, so I have a chance to learn interesting things from other classes without taking those classes.” For example, just last week, the Garfield Republicans compared the two theorists, John Foster Dulles and Clausevitz.

Besides discussing speeches and books, co-president Mike Szkodzinski ’99 said they also utilize meetings as a chance to meet with faculty members just to chat. It is not unusual for a faculty member to speak to the group about a variety of topics linking to politics in some way, be it directly or sometimes indirectly.

Faculty talks range from “Why I Am Not A Republican” to other pertinent questions. Past faculty speakers have included Professors from a range of departments including political science and art history. In the absence of a faculty member or reading, the Republicans discuss general current political topics, such as last week’s timely topic of hate crime legislation.

While the Garfield Republicans have admittedly not been very actively involved in political campaigning this year, they have been active in the past. Two years ago they sent several students to New Hampshire during the primaries to hang posters, stuff envelopes, and do various other volunteer jobs. They have also been to several conferences during the school year including the Young Americas Foundation.

In past years, the Republicans also have brought a number of prominent key speakers to campus. Previous speakers included Dinesh D’Souza, author of The End of Racism, Christina Hoff Summers, author of Who Stole Feminism?, and Bob Novak, a writer for the Chicago Sun-Times and co-host of Crossfire. Plans for this years speakers include former presidential candidate Alan Keyes and P.J. O’Rourke, the foreign affairs editor of Rolling Stone magazine.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the Williams College Democrats have been busily planning the year ahead, first-years as potential new members. They have yet to recruit any first-years for the group, but Cathy Warren ’99 said that plans are well underway for meetings with first-years in the near future. Right now, the group comprises roughly 10-15 individuals.

Despite the well-known fact that the campus is predominantly Democrat or liberal, the Williams College Democrats includes only a small number of students. According to Warren, the relatively small membership despite the largely Democratic student body can be attributed to majority complacency. “Since most of the campus is Democrat it is more difficult to mobilize individuals to join the organization,” she said. “While it is ironic, in a sense, people may feel they have nothing to fight against, so they don’t even join.”

Since Spring of last year, the Democrats have been planning to have various professors to join them over dinner so that students can become more knowledgeable about politics and current events in general.

Most of the Williams College Democrats meetings so far this year have been concerned with possible speakers for the upcoming year. “A list of possible speakers range from Senator Ted Kennedy to Geraldine Ferraro,” said Jessica Richman ’99. “A great deal of effort is taking place to elicit the best speaker we can with the best resources that we can.”

Plans for the upcoming year also include conferences dealing with American politics. While definite plans have not yet been made, the Democrats are excited about the possibilities and are busily discussing forming various committees to deal with the wide variety of issues that they would like to pursue this year.

These three politically natured organizations, while they are obviously different in many ways, are similar in one way. They all encourage political activism in the purple bubble.

Remember, you don’t have to be involved in any political group to partake in the power of politics and government. Today participation is more apparent and important as you are given t
he fundamental right to vote. So if you do want to vote and are registered in Williamstown, put down that sandwich and go visit the polls. You don’t even have to walk there.

Voter Information Service is providing a shuttle service so that students can vote at Williamstown Elementary School. The shuttle leaves Chapin Steps on the half hour or as needed from 7 a.m.-11 a.m. and 1 p.m.-3 p.m. The polls are open 7 a.m.-8 p.m.

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