On political participation: Making civic engagement a priority at the College

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The midterm elections were some of the most highly anticipated races in recent history. Voters turned out on Nov. 6 at higher rates than has been seen in a midterm elections in the past 50 years. This election provided the first opportunity for Democrats to put a check on Trump’s power and to gain control of Congress and state governments. In addition to deciding who would control Congress and statehouses, this election was about defending worldviews and values. In fact, Trump basically stated that the election was a referendum on him. A blue or red wave in this election would send a clear message about Trump’s time in office and what type of country we are becoming.

Despite the importance of this election, I was surprised that many people on this campus did not register to vote. I was at dinner with classmates a week before the midterm elections and the topic of the elections emerged. Primed and eager to discuss the implications of the upcoming elections, I was shocked when the conversation materialized into a discussion about not voting in the midterm elections. Of the seven people sitting at my dinner table, six casually mentioned that they simply had not gotten around to sending in their absentee ballot. One was scrambling to send hers in before the deadline, but the others seemed completely complacent in not engaging in their civic duty. This was particularly alarming to me, because this would have been the first opportunity to vote in midterm elections for everyone at that table. They all made the conscious decision not to fill out an absentee ballot or send it in, deciding that the outcome of the midterm elections just wasn’t important enough to devote a few minutes of their time to.

At the College, it is easy to feel like we live in an idyllic “Purple Bubble” where politics and civic engagement can take a backseat to course work and extracurricular activities. What is troubling about the optionality of participating in politics at the College is that if young people at the College aren’t voting, who will? We pride ourselves on the liberal arts values of a wide-ranging breadth of knowledge and information, but yet, there are tons of people on this campus who don’t feel a need to vote. In order for policy to fundamentally shift, invigorated young voters need to show up to the polls, in rates we’ve never seen before. Despite higher voter turnouts among young voters, the midterm elections did not display the blue tsunami that many Democrats were hoping for. Democrats won back the House in the midterm elections, which is a huge deal, but it also means that for all intents and purposes, legislative activity will now be at a standstill.

As a community, we at the College need to make our civic engagement a top priority. The College community does a relatively good job of providing the resources for voters to get registered and fill out absentee ballots. But we don’t do a good enough job of providing incentives for people who might not otherwise vote. We also don’t follow up with absentee ballot completion. Not only should we be assisting people in signing up for their ballots, we should also be sending out emails about voting deadlines and create incentives to encourage people to actually send in the ballot itself.  Looking ahead to 2020, the continued increase of the young voter base is essential for Trump to be defeated. As a member of the Williams community, I urge us to do more to foster conversations about politics, current events and social change. By the time 2020 rolls around, students should feel as though they are voting for their vision of America and the future, not that it’s just an obligatory process that is optional for them to engage in.

Alexandra Pear ’22 is from Philadelphia, Pa. Her major is undecided.