Apathy harms youth voter turnout

by Cole Entress | 11/4/02 6:00am

Editor's note: This is the sixth in a series of articles chronicling the New Hampshire congressional campaigns.

Despite a Democrat-Republican face-off that could change the balance of power in both houses of Congress, a trend of low student-voter turnout both at Dartmouth and throughout the nation is unlikely to change, according to political pundits.

Though the contested issues in the upcoming election range from abortion rights to boosting the sagging economy, candidates' efforts to mobilize youth voters have largely been fruitless. Consequently, most Dartmouth students will likely not vote in the close U.S. Senate race between Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen and Republican U.S. Rep. John E. Sununu.

Approximately 1,000 Dartmouth students registered on Election Day and voted as New Hampshire residents in the 2000 election, according to N.H. Democratic Party intern Josh Marcuse '04.

Students interviewed by The Dartmouth gave various reasons for their decision to go or stay away from the polls on Tuesday.

"I usually vote, but I don't feel like I have an affiliation with any of the candidates right now," Brian Gattis '03 said. "On campus, I feel out of touch with national issues, and I don't want to fill in a ballot without knowing who I'm voting for."

According to University of Florida political science professor Margaret Conway's book "Political Participation in the United States," young voters are generally less likely to vote because they feel little or no sense of community with the place they live.

Although college students vote in larger numbers than do non-students of the same age, their turnout remains significantly less than in older age brackets, according to Conway's book, which also maintains that many younger voters perceive their vote as unimportant.

"I don't think that much change comes about through politics," Becca Heller '05 said. "People just don't see change coming from the federal government anymore, and when they want to change something, they don't use a voting box."

Heller, who worked with MTV's "Rock the Vote" last summer to organize a Children's Defense Fund rally in Washington, D.C., advocated youth activism through rallies and volunteering on a more grassroots level, like "making peanut-butter sandwiches or working in a soup kitchen."

However, according to Rockefeller Center Director Linda Fowler, community service and volunteerism, while commendable, cannot replace voting.

"There's certainly a trend in this generation to substitute community service for political participation," Fowler said. "I think that's a shortsighted view -- political action is the only way to change the conditions that lead to needing soup kitchens in the first place."

Heller did not agree entirely, but nonetheless said that she will vote in tomorrow's election.

"I'm one of those people who doesn't feel like my vote matters, but votes anyway because otherwise, when I complain about [youth apathy], I would feel like a pretty big hypocrite," Heller said.

Vikash Reddy '05, president of the Young Democrats, has become highly involved in this election. He has not only made his automatic reply a campaign advertisement for Shaheen, but he has also changed his registration from Utah to New Hampshire in order to vote for her on Tuesday.

"It's not middle-aged people who need to worry about the future of Social Security or going to war," Reddy said, "it's us. We really ought to be listened to, but no one's going to listen to us if we don't vote."

Yet on Tuesday, many students might still choose not to vote despite the fact that "it's possible that Shaheen or Sununu will win by a margin less than the number of votes cast at Dartmouth," Reddy said.

Student organizations like the Young Democrats and Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity will be holding voter registration drives through Tuesday. Students interested in voting and registering to vote can do so by filling out an affidavit on the day of election and changing their residency to their New Hampshire address -- a relatively easy process.

Although students with loans or grants contingent on their state residency might want to abstain from New Hampshire voting, others should face no problems switching their residency and voting in Hanover, Town Clerk Sallie Johnson said.

Many students with disparate interest levels in politics prefer to vote in their home state via absentee ballot, for reasons ranging from financial aid concerns to the sense of isolation of Dartmouth's campus from the rest of New Hampshire.

"New York is where I pay taxes," College Republicans Treasurer Rollo Begley '04 said. "I may get involved in the elections in New Hampshire because that's where I am, but at the end of the day, New Hampshire politics just don't affect me that much."

Fowler said she expects the youth turnout to be especially low at this election because so few of the issues under contention directly affect youth. However, the perception that the issues in Congress will not affect youth at all is mistaken, she said, citing the ongoing war on terrorism and the precarious state of abortion rights as two issues that may affect young voters.