Roughly 200 students amassed in the Paresky Auditorium this past Friday to watch the first presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama. The 150-seat theater was filled beyond capacity and many were forced to sit in the aisles or watch the debate on the TV screens in the basement’s lounge area. Williams Voter Registration, which co-sponsored the event with the Record, also ran a voter registration and absentee ballot request at the same location.
Friday evening was a high point in Williams political engagement for those who bemoan the apathy that is constantly attributed to the Purple Bubble. “Williams has always been somewhat less political than our peers,” James Mahon, professor of political science said. He added that the students who choose to come to the College are not as likely to be politically active as those who can “walk out the door into a world where politics is prevalent.”
But as the Nov. 4 general election inches closer, political activity at the College is no longer so uncommon as certain student groups, faculty and administrators seek to push campus consciousness towards discourse of national issues.
Will Slack ’11 and Colette Salemi ’10 are heading Williams Voter Registration, a group similar to the non-profit advocacy organization, Rock the Vote. Composed of approximately 15 students, the organization is aiming to help students request absentee ballots and to register as many first-year voters as possible.
To achieve this goal, the group went around to every entry passing out voter registration forms and a list to sign up for absentee ballots during entry snacks two Sundays ago. A few days later, they returned with a photocopier in tow to make the required ID copies. “Registering people to vote is hard, especially because we have people from so many different states,” Slack said. “Each state has different requirements and deadlines, too, which makes everything harder.”
Complexities notwithstanding, the group managed to register approximately 130 first-years and submitted around 250 absentee ballot requests.
Another campus political group, Williams Students for Barack Obama, set up tables in Paresky to register new voters and to send absentee ballots last week and plan to do so again in the near future.
The Garfield Society, a conservative organization, was recently reinstated on campus and at present has one member, Raphael Menko ’12.
Two other advocacy groups are zeroing in on the presidential elections. Thursday Night Grassroots, a sustainability activism organization, is working on a campaign called PowerVote, which aims to give youth a voice in Washington. This national campaign, which is run by the Energy Action Coalition, seeks pledges to vote on environmental and social justice issues.
“It gives lobbyists the power and the voice of youth, so I could call up and say, Ã¢â‚¬ËœMy name is Sasha Macko and I represent 500 students at Williams College pledging to vote on green energy,’” said Sasha Macko ’11. “The campaign has paid staff and is much larger than Williamstown, and has a goal of one million pledges in time for the November election.”
Students for Social Justice is embarking on a poster and Paresky TV publicity campaign called Check the Box. “The posters are non-partisan and will present issues and the candidates’ views on them,” said Leah Katzelnick ’10, adding that the first poster, on the economy, will go up by today. “We’re planning on posting about 11 different issues, and hopefully it will give people a heads up on a couple of campaign points.”
Professors in different disciplines are also increasingly integrating political dialogue into their classes, whether on the level of teaching Arabic 201 students the words for “candidate” and “win,” or through intensive analysis of fairness and outcome voting systems in classes with Allison Pacelli, assistant professor of mathematics.
Furthermore, the math department will be hosting two talks by Michel Balinski ’54, a leading expert in the field of math and politics, on Oct. 6. Balinski will present a new presidential electoral method called Majority Judgment, using data from a mock election survey of students from the College.
In addition to Balinski’s online survey, the Office of Public Affairs has also been utilizing the Internet to raise awareness about the presidential face-off. The Williams Election 2008 Web site, williams.edu/home/focus/election, which collects election-related events and useful links, went live this past Monday, succeeding the series of politically conscious Daily Messages that began last year.
Mahon notes an increase in political activities compared to those surrounding the primaries at the beginning of this year. He noted, however, that political activism still remains hard at the College “because in order to really make a difference, you have to go to New Hampshire. Canvassing voters in Berkshire County won’t really change anything, but in New Hampshire, a few thousand votes can sway the state.”