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Princeton has a voting problem

<h6>Jonathan Haynes (back right) and Amanda Morrison (front right) talk with first-year Allen Dai (back left) and junior Eun Ahn (front left) about the Vote100 Initiative.</h6>
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<h6>Courtesy of Office of Communications</h6>
Jonathan Haynes (back right) and Amanda Morrison (front right) talk with first-year Allen Dai (back left) and junior Eun Ahn (front left) about the Vote100 Initiative.

Courtesy of Office of Communications

Vote100 is an ODUS-sponsored, student-led initiative. Our mission is to ensure 100 percent of Princeton students are civically engaged, with an emphasis on ensuring that those eligible to vote in each election can do so.

There’s no other way to say it — Princetonians don’t vote nearly as much as they should. Our voting rate regularly hovers dozens of points below the national average of a country infamous for its low turnout. According to the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE), in 2014, only 10.5 percent of eligible Princetonians voted.

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This low turnout sparked the formation of Princeton’s Vote100 initiative, where I’m working this summer, in 2015. In 2018, we saw the percentage grow to 43.6 percent, and we must build on that momentum heading into the 2020 election in order to reach our goal of 100 percent election participation for eligible Princeton students. But to do that, we have to overcome diverse and deeply entrenched obstacles, including Princeton’s campus culture and widespread voter suppression among young people.

That Princeton’s voter turnout still sits below 50 percent is both unsurprising and deeply unsettling. Princeton has long prided itself, not without truth, on its separation from the scuffle of daily politics. For a select few, debates unfolding in Trenton or Washington can seem far removed from the dependability of life at the University. The “Orange Bubble” — the thick yet invisible wall of privilege, wealth, and institutional stability that separates us from the outside world — is real. 

Princeton takes care of its students and itself so effectively that it becomes easy to forget the world outside. The wall of the bubble allows us to focus on our studies, cushioning many of us from the violent political and cultural whiplash that goes on beyond its gates. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has forced many of us to see that Princeton cannot be self-sufficient or self-involved — that as much as we would like to believe we are a secure, insular community, we depend on a functional government, an informed populace, and a safe world.

Our “apolitical” campus seems to be bordering on apathetic. Although voting has never been more important, Princetonians are still lagging behind the rest of the country and even other universities in voter turnout. The 2020 elections are coming fast, and we should not — we cannot — stand behind the walls of the “bubble” while others decide our future for us. 

It is important to begin dispelling the misguided notions that are behind that apathy. First, voting affects Princeton directly. Eighty-two percent of the University’s sponsored research budget comes from federal agencies. Whether you are in the English department, which receives funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, or a Biology major, where your research funding might come from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, or even NASA, you depend on a government that is willing and able to support you. Students in STEM majors, like Computer Science, Math, and the physical sciences, have some of the lowest voting rates of any discipline, yet are most dependent on government funding. Natural sciences, engineering, and applied science received 92 percent of federal dollars directed toward the University. The funding on which the University relies is, to a great extent, created and disbursed by a government that you control. 

Second, your vote does count, no matter where it is cast. A lot of Americans associate voting with the presidential election, believing it to be the only one that matters, and for that reason they are disillusioned with the electoral process. After all, in the last two decades, two presidents have been elected with a minority of the popular vote. Especially if you aren’t registered in a swing state, voting for president can feel meaningless. But the President is only one piece of our government. 

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Congressional and even Senate races are decided by far fewer votes, especially in midterm election cycles. And local elections, especially, are more consequential than people assume. Aside from school board and city council elections — which are crucial in their own right — state legislatures and governors are often responsible for the redistricting that follows a census. That is, they redraw congressional districts to accommodate changes in population. 2020 is a census year, so in many states, the legislators that are elected this November will decide election maps for the decade to come. These state-drawn maps then affect the composition of the House of Representatives and therefore the legislative agenda for the entire country. The Princeton Gerrymandering Project is an excellent resource for understanding why redistricting is so consequential, even for states seemingly dominated by a single party.

Finally, there exists the perpetual belief that politicians don’t listen to young people. That, unfortunately, is often true, but it is partially on us. Millennials, people born between 1981 and 1996, are approaching Boomers as the largest generation in the American electorate, but unlike Boomers, they vote at much lower rates. Millennials lagged behind their predecessors by nearly 20 points in the 2016 election. Our generation can change this trend. Generation Z — people born 1997 and after — is projected to come out in force in 2020. Politicians can no longer ignore our voices if we make them heard at the ballot box. When we establish ourselves as a generation that takes pride in voting in each and every election, politicians will have to listen to us.

Those in our community who are ineligible to vote, or who cannot spare the time or face other barriers, rely on those of us who can — not only to form a government that represents us all, but to sustain a culture of acceptance and progress. We constantly lament the government seeming to be indifferent to our generation’s concerns, and have every right to be frustrated. But no one should give up the fight to be heard. Until every eligible member of our community registers and votes, there is more that can be done. 

Voting once means you are more likely to vote in the future. This November is your chance to start. Our generation has the potential to become a powerful, well-informed, activist voting bloc. Every day, a few more people register. Every day, a few more people find a cause worth fighting for. We will look back on 2020 as a momentous year, and we will be glad we didn’t let it pass us by.

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Please go to princeton.turbovote.org for help registering to vote. TurboVote makes registration faster and easier, no matter where you choose to register. TurboVote will also remind you of upcoming election-related deadlines and changes to the election process due to Covid-19. Registration is free and postage is prepaid. If you need to check your registration or confirm your eligibility, you can visit this website

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