Voting matters. Just last fall, a single vote decided an election that flipped the majority control of my state legislature — not once, but twice. After recounting the ballots of Virginia’s 94th District of the House of Delegates, officials announced a tie, which a three-judge panel later upheld and a draw of lot ultimately settled earlier this year. Yet for many University students, it’s the last thing on our mind this break. And if the dodging eyes I struggled to meet while tabling for voter registration in Frist Campus Center this semester are any indication, it’s the last thing any of us want to think about.
This attitude isn’t new to Princeton. In the 2014 midterm elections, only 12 percent of our undergraduate student body cast ballots while 19.9 percent of the nation’s 18–29-year-olds voted. Although youth tend to turn out at lower rates than other age demographics, University students turn out at rates well below our peer institutions and the nation.
However, this attitude isn’t innate to the University. In fact, the fall break we’re all enjoying right now has its origins in a period reserved for University students to volunteer and organize for campaigns. Participating in the elections is part of being a University student; it should be as integral to our University experience as Outdoor or Community Action, zee group study breaks, and petulant listservs.
This year, the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students, the Undergraduate Student Government, the American Whig-Cliosophic Society, and various student leaders joined together for an initiative with exactly this aim: Vote100. The initiative aspires for 100 percent of University undergraduates to engage civically in the 2018 midterm elections and every election thereafter. This means voting if eligible, encouraging friends and family to vote, or rallying behind a cause you care about. Students demonstrate their commitment to civic engagement by taking the Vote100 pledge in solidarity with their peers. Civic responsibility is a foundational characteristic of what it means to be a Princetonian. After all, how else can the University act “in the nation’s service and in the service of humanity” but through its students leading the charge?
University students have a responsibility to dismantle the attitude that one’s vote does not count, and this begins with broader conversation about civic engagement in our community. When we talk about civic engagement during election season, it’s easy to think of voting. But if you missed your registration deadline or you are ineligible to vote this election, rest assured: Voting remains only one of many aspects to civic engagement.
Stanford professor Thomas Ehrlich challenges us, writing, “Civic engagement means working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.” Hence the University has the Pace Center for Civic Engagement. All students have a role to play in civic engagement. We are each members of communities where our knowledge, skills, values, and motivations can help make the difference. Civic engagement is about offering our passions to a cause greater than ourselves.
It’s taking an afternoon to play baseball with aspiring athletes; it’s launching a rocket with the local Girl Scouts; it’s teaching English as a second language courses for eating club employees; it’s writing an op-ed on an important issue; it’s going out to support your friends’ intramural soccer match; it’s attending a protest or hosting a counter event; it’s editing an anxious hometown senior’s college essays; it’s dissenting in a politically charged precept; it’s coaching a middle school classroom through their first lines of code; it’s knocking on doors for your preferred candidate or calling voters to remind them election day is Nov. 6.
Whatever it is that you may enjoy, there’s a way to give back, to help others, and to inspire those who look up to you through it. This election cycle, remember that civic engagement does not begin or end with voting.
Caleb Visser is a junior politics concentrator from Williamsburg, Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.