2016 Election: Vanderbilt on voter turnout

Fifty days left. An election season swung high and heavy in emotions finds the long haul now lapsing to its final stretch. America’s most anticipated answer lays just around the corner. Vanderbilt is no stranger to this national anticipation. Our university has made an effort to stay engaged in such a pivotal political year. Viewing parties across campus, in Kissam and Commons, plan to launch the first of four presidential debates on September 26th. “U.S. Elections,” a political science course offered once every four years, exceeded its limit with a class size of 295 students. And last Wednesday, Langford Auditorium was filled to near capacity for the first part the Chancellor’s Lecture Series, “Decision 2016— A Look at America’s Future.” Vanderbilt is in on this national obsession. Along with the nation, we are watching these next fifty days on tenterhooks, as the presidential candidates vie for each of us on election day.

Tossed around every election season, “Who will you vote for?” becomes the natural topic for dinner conversation. Some consider it overly forward or rude, while others embrace the verbal sparring with both hands up. However, the question loses its gusto and zeal after understanding just how few people actually follow through on their word. Whether for Trump, Clinton, Johnson, Stein or a write-in candidate, that answer rarely makes it way to the voting booths. Rather than a question of “who,” the better question may instead be, “Will you vote?”

Voter turnout continues to be a striking problem for this country. According to the New York Times, only 18% of Americans and 27% of eligible voters turned out for the 2016 presidential primary. In other words, a year considered relatively high in voter turnout missed about 73% of voters at the polls. A government of, by and for 18% of the people.  

Last week, the Hustler surveyed nearly 500 Vanderbilt students (about 7% of the student body) on voter turnout.

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Results show that 36% of students voted in the past presidential primary. These statistics reflect better on Vanderbilt and the new generation of educated voters. However, the disconnect between intention and action still clearly remains when more than half of surveyed non-voters claimed “they didn’t vote but wanted to” in the primary. At Vanderbilt, political interest and engagement do not seem to be the problem.

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Almost all of surveyed students, 90 percent, said they plan to vote in the general election, but will these numbers make it to the ballot box? Statistics say no. Although general elections lean higher at 54.87%, turnout has never reached as high as Vanderbilt’s 90 percent forecast in U.S. history. Students want to vote, but why is closing the gap so difficult?

Lack of voting stations and early voting options, says Dr. John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt. However, these often affect poor neighborhoods in crowded metropolitan areas disproportionately, rather than Vanderbilt students. For college voters, the bureaucracy of voting can be the biggest deterrent.

“Our system isn’t conducive to make it easy for the youth to vote; registration laws pose hurdles,” Geer said. This applies to the 87 percent of Vanderbilt students who will register as first-time voters this year.

By far, though, the biggest obstacle for college voters are absentee ballots. The process can be long and grueling, and in some cases take up to 12 weeks for unregistered first-time voters. The clock not only ticks for our ambitious candidates, but for us as citizens too. Fifty days sounds like plenty of time to prepare for election day Nov. 8, but for the vast majority of Vanderbilt undergraduates, it’s cutting close. Ninety percent of Vanderbilt undergraduates come from out-of-state and require absentee voting, which can take time and planning in an already more-than-full schedule. Tedious voter registration or ballot applications can often be the last thing on a college student’s mind.

Additionally, rules and deadlines for absentee ballots vary by state and consequently makes this information less visible on campus. For instance, the Office for Active Citizenship and Service is federally mandated to share voting information and deadline reminders to the Vanderbilt Community, but this information is limited to the state of Tennessee and is unuseful to most student voters.

Low voter turnout is rooted in American habits and psychology. Sometimes it’s not that we can’t vote, but rather that we simply don’t. Celia Gregory, the Nashville team leader of Headcount, a national nonpartisan organization that holds voter registration drives at music events ranging from Bonnaroo to Austin City Limits, came to Vanderbilt last week as a guest speaker at two political science classes. One of the biggest factors, she attributed to voter turnout, is family values.

“A boy well under voting age, probably 13 or 14, volunteered at a show in Oklahoma City with his Dad,” Gregory told the Hustler. “He wanted to get the kid involved early and engage members of the community together. I loved that. Some Americans are lucky enough to grow up with this value instilled in us.”

These habits and attitudes start to form at a young age and can carry throughout a person’s life. School can also be where habits form when children first learn about government. Textbooks even recall the history of low voter turnout with poll taxes and grandfather clauses that barred African Americans from voting. Unfortunately, despite this historical lens, “teachers don’t always draw those parallels between history and present,” Gregory said.

Psychological factors can be the most powerful and difficult to change. Professor Geer compared voting to the lottery, “you play Powerball for the fun of it, not with the prospect to win.” Many students find it a fool’s errand. With over 120 million voters, a statistically infinitesimal vote has no pull or purpose on the electoral process. One vote will hardly stem the coming tide of the inevitable presidential pick. In a pragmatist’s point of view, abstention can be a more logical and time-fulfilling choice. Geer comically captured the sentiment best saying that, “you have a greater chance to getting killed on the way to the voter booth than having an effect on the election.” It’s hard to make an argument against this when the numbers do not lie.

Social desirability also influences the turnout gap. Professor Geer explains that “there is a lot of exaggeration in self reports.” The 90 percent forecast might be more optimistic than students are willing to admit. Americans might shy away from disclosing voter disinterest because people are socialized to value voting. Voting holds inherently American values– freedom, equality, democracy. To admit any differently might tarnish social desirability or shade disrespect.

High voter turnout is almost unattainable with so many obstacles in place. The irony comes in when better and faster communication does nothing to better these prospects. Why aren’t voters mobilized in droves in the digital age? Geer says, “there’s a partisan edge to keeping voters out.” Both political parties each have partisan benefits to high or low voter turnout and therefore make it difficult for certain groups to vote.

Despite the pressure from the top, voting is possible with some effort. It’s a simple matter of up-to-date information and the drive to take agency. Luckily, it may be easier than you think this year. Voter drives will border Rand Wall Monday and Tuesday of these next two weeks from 11am-1pm, hosted by VSG, the Multi-Partisan Student Coalition, College Republicans and College Democrats. Ryan Connor, a member of the VSG first-year team, helped organize the event.

“We put together an event that will allow students to register to vote or fill out an absentee ballot,” Connor said. “Voting is truly a version of service and we all wanted to make it as easy as possible for Vanderbilt students to engage in the political process.”

If you’re further interested in voting in this 2016 general election, Part II will share all the steps, deadlines and information you’ll need to vote.

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