Whether you’ve been on campus for three weeks or three years, one thing is clear: UChicago students have a lot of opinions, many of which are political. And of course, as is befitting of a college so committed to free speech, we are not afraid to make our opinions heard, perhaps demonstrated best by our prominent protests (you may have seen the GSU walkout this past week). Together, being opinionated and generally aware of the current political climate form a massive part of our campus culture, clearly visible (and audible) in everything from class discussions to parties.
Why, then, does our voter turnout not reflect our opinionatedness? The National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) found that a mere 19 percent of UChicago students voted in the 2014 midterm elections (a dismal 33.3 percent of the 58 percent who were registered), which was below the (also poor) national average of 36.4 percent. This was a year that saw a sweeping +8 gain in senate seats for the Republican party, a disparity that still persists and fuels many of the current-day issues we care so much about. UChicago’s voting rate was up to 50.2 percent for the contentious 2016 presidential election according to the NSLVE, but this was still only 73.5 percent of the 68.4 percent of UChicago students who were registered to vote, and far lower than the national turnout rate of 61.4 percent.
As reflected in NSLVE statistics, that 50.2 percent voting rate in 2016 was just under two points higher than the NSLVE student voting average (48.3 percent), but our registration rate of 68.4 percent was actually lower than the NSLVE student registration average (70.6 percent) by just over two points. We, members of an institution that prides itself on its focus on political discourse, were truly average at the polls. Likewise, the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, which promotes higher collegiate voting turnout, gives us—and many other schools—a bronze rating in terms of student voter engagement. Other schools did better, including Northwestern, which earned a silver rating; other schools did worse, like Stanford with no rating. So that was UChicago in 2016: decidedly average in terms of voter registration and turnout and part of a large pack tied for bronze, a pack that includes many of our Ivy League–ranking rivals such as Harvard, Yale, and Brown.
But that’s not us! We’re UChicago, goddammit—as they told us all at our prospie overnights in that speech at Rockefeller, we are decidedly not average, and everyone knows that the only place we tie for third in is in the U.S. News & World Report rankings.
So why don’t we care? I trust that the people who care enough to protest are voting, along with a handful of other students who dutifully register and cast their ballots. But for the rest—the casual complainers, who love to speak but loathe to act—what more has to happen before it’s finally time to give a damn?
We can’t settle for average, especially not now. Voter participation suffers a major slump during midterms, but we can do better. It’s so incredibly easy to retreat into your own bubble of work- and stress-induced apathy, to forget the issues that plague the rest of the country on a campus woefully bereft of cable TV. But we cannot fall victim to that, to the ease of just not acting, just relaxing, and worshipping political theory over (dare I even say) practice. Voter apathy, particularly on college campuses, poses a dangerous trend, especially when the group with the largest turnout continues to be made up of baby boomers who prove time and time again that they do not have our best interests in mind.
They like to call our generation lazy; we need to prove more than ever that we are not—that we can do more than just complain. I can’t count how many times on campus I’ve heard people say that they don’t see the point in voting, that in the end their ballot doesn’t matter; sure, maybe it doesn’t make a difference if only you don’t vote, but based on how many times I’ve heard that sentiment, it’s a fairly common opinion. Those individual instances of apathy add up to a massive deficit in would-be voters, and that is exactly how elections are lost. According to vote.org, it takes two minutes to register to vote and another two minutes to request an absentee ballot. Many states are still allowing voter registration, and even more are still mailing out absentees. The Institute of Politics here on campus is also providing free stamps and envelopes to mail in ballots and absentee request forms for states that require written appeals. Is it too much to ask for you to take a total of four minutes out of your stress nap/cry/scream in order to register and order an absentee ballot, and then go through the lists and mark down what you care about? This is your chance to finally make your opinions have a quantitative value. It would be a shame to throw that opportunity away.
Katia Kukucka is a second-year in the College.