Election 2016 is No Time for Voter Apathy

The 2014 election had the worst voter turnout in the past 72 years of American history. Photo courtesy of Reuters.

The 2014 election had the worst voter turnout in the past 72 years of American history. Photo courtesy of Reuters.

In the 2014 election, less than half of the eligible population of voters showed up at the polls. No state broke 60 percent. In fact, it was the worst voter turnout in the past 72 years of American history—only 36.3 percent, nationally, with about a 20 percent turnout for young voters.

The numbers are abysmal, but they have not been ignored. Bernie Sanders in particular has framed his campaign around the idea of a political revolution—one that hopes to inspire a surge of political efficacy to get out the vote and take back the government that he claims is controlled by money, not average citizens. While Sanders has evidently made remarkable strides in the polls and primaries, a question of doubt is being raised among political hopefuls and cynics alike: will the thousands that show up to the rallies translate to thousands in the voting booths come election day? 

The ideal answer is obvious, but mainstream media is not so sure. In the aftermath of the New Hampshire primary, The Washington Post reported that only nineteen percent of Democratic voters were less than thirty years old—a mere one point percentage increase than the turnout in 2008 state primary. It appears that while young voters have not been mobilized at exceptional rates thus far, a majority of those who have are rallying behind revolution—a revolution, by the way, that is not only catered to young people, but to the average citizen. 

Compared to the 2008 numbers, the number of Democrats who voted in the primary increased, and so did total voter turnout in New Hampshire by 20%. While the corporate media reports that there was a minimal percentage increase in young voters, the point is that for some reason or another, turnout is on the rise. Not to mention that 80 percent of young votes cast went to Sanders, who won New Hampshire in a landslide. A 50 percent turnout for a primary is huge and raises important questions—it means that all that political scientists know about voting tendencies may be changing. 

The primaries are typically reserved for “political elites”—that is, a small percentage of citizens who are the most informed, educated and politically active. The fact that more and more people who are presumably more casually interested in politics are showing up at the polls months before the general election is important. People are not only listening to rally cries, but responding to them.

What this means is that 2016 is an incredibly important year for witnessing change in the way that people interact with the democratic process. What is causing the shift is an interesting question, and many speculate that one of the answers is social media. Social media, which is overwhelmingly dominated by young people. Yet if this is the case, shouldn’t young turnout percentages reflect this influence?

With data from only two primaries, it’s difficult to say. What can and should be said, however, is that now more than ever is the average citizen being offered a chance to mold the way the political process will work for years to come. Sanders said it first—and it’s an idea worth repeating: young people are the key. 

It’s a known fact that turnout rates are exceptionally higher among eligible voters who are older and more educated. Young people turn out less for a variety of reasons which range from apathy to the inconvenient and confusing process of voting from outside of one’s home state. For both of these problems there is one obvious solution: resources. What young people and voters as a general population are desperately missing is resources—that is, not only access to information about logistical things like absentee voting but also access to the political discourse.

On college campuses in particular, this access exists. Groups like SLC Democrats and SLC Students for Bernie Sanders are shining examples of this potential. Their enemy is the enemy of all human attempts to rally for change—apathy. 

The students who lead and participate in these groups are paradigms that need be followed and not merely admired. 

“I mailed in my absentee ballot vote for Bernie Sanders last week, so there’s a piece of evidence for our legitimate political activity,” said Hank Broege, a member of the SLC Students for Bernie Sanders group. “[The] group has already hosted at least a couple phone banking parties, with a third one happening tonight. I can’t attend tonight’s party, but I’m going to one in Manhattan on Thursday to make up for it,” he said. The group hosted a “Bern-rager” party in Andrew’s Court last weekend with an interesting twist—a five-dollar entrance fee in exchange for party favors, with all the fees to be sent to Sanders’ campaign. 

In the 2014 election, only 20 percent of 18 to 29 year olds cast ballots. Keep in mind that only 42.2 percent of college aged students (18 to 24 years old) were even registered to vote to begin with in that same year. The numbers are pathetic, frankly—but how does this happen? Why?

At a school like Sarah Lawrence, complacency does not explain anything. People are angry all the time—and that’s important. While that anger often manifests into productive expressions of important grievances, what has failed to be acknowledged is the necessity of political participation in any battle fought in this country. 

Activism makes people listen—but the problem is that too often it’s easy to forget that the very people who are being complained to are the ones who were voluntarily elected into office. The problem is that the many young people are ready and willing to show up at the doorsteps of vilified politicians go MIA the day that the address of the doorstep could actually be changed.

Voting is no perfect solution—obviously, politics is a game that is dominated by complexity, conflicting interests, and ulterior motives—but it is too important for how neglected it is. Bernie Sanders is on his way to proving that in some capacity, the political system can be taken back by the average citizen. The friend of the cynic is money and corrupt campaign finance, but candidates like Jeb Bush have proven that money does not buy elections. The invisible primary does not have to exist if the people show up to fight it. 

Many realities of the backroom of American politics are disturbing—but the most terrifying part is that so many of us who are a part of a blossoming generation pining for change are sitting back and debating politics over coffee but forgetting to show up the day that our voices actually matter.

“We are apathetic, but not apathetic enough,” said Sam Abrams, professor of politics. Most of us don’t care enough to participate in the system, but we care enough to feel disturbed by it when we start to pay attention. We are angry at a system created by the small percentage of people that do participate and we want to change it.

Change will come—in one way or another. Either we can continue to sit back until things become so intolerable that the whole system is upturned and a new party replaces one of the two major ones, etc. Or it will come by making it happen. The former possibility may be inevitable anyhow, but to wait it out with complacency is a total waste of the democratic system that is both the great virtue and plague of this country.

You might not have time to go to the AC Sanders party or phone bank marathons, but sending in an absentee ballot takes the same amount of time as reading through another mind-numbing article on Facebook. The time has come to rip the metaphorical duct-tape off of one’s mouth and cease the cycle of voluntary disenfranchisement via apathy and ignorance. The point is: get out the vote.

Kate Bakhtiyarova '19

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The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.