Whether you saw it first broadcasted on our mailing lists by concerned citizens, read it in the FoHo or heard it from friends over dinner, virtually everyone on campus knows the statistic: Fewer than 1 in 5 eligible Stanford students voted in the last midterm election. Stanford’s voting habits are uniquely bad: We vote at a rate two percent lower than peer institutions. In the wake of growing campus awareness of our historically dismal levels of civic engagement, organizations are gearing up to reverse the apathy that was prevalent in 2014. But even if Stanford gets its numbers up in one month, perennially low political involvement, in the long run, will persist if voters can only be moved to go to the polls by figures like Trump. Such a failure would constitute a continuing threat to our civil liberties: Trump’s huge upset over Clinton was largely dependent on swathes of registered voters who didn’t show up at polls as expected. While the focus on November is needed and urgent, we must critically examine the assumptions that have prevented us from voting in the past, and assume responsibility for creating a political culture we’d like to see in the future.
Political scientists have long argued that young people are bad at voting because they don’t perceive any self-interested stake in the outcome of elections: We don’t pay taxes, we’re not concerned about social security yet and we’re covered by our parents’ healthcare plans. In my view, however, Stanford suffers from an opposite and subtler phenomenon. In fact, we are almost constantly ideating about social ills that don’t directly affect us: we are involved in social good projects that attempt to solve problems we’ve never faced, and participate in class discussions about “fixing” the global South’s myriad problems. But we can’t be bothered to spend a few hours educating ourselves about issues on the ballot, because we subconsciously believe that voting is a low-impact activity. In short, it is easy to think that, amid the many other world-saving endeavors in which we are engaged, voting is beneath us.
“You’re a government major and you don’t vote?” I asked my friend last summer. She proceeded to deliver a convincing argument that I’ve heard many times from people of all different backgrounds, but particularly millennials: My vote doesn’t matter, she said, and even close elections have never come down to a single vote. Of course, if we could mobilize 1,000 similarly-minded individuals to join us at the polls, there could be a small (though still statistically insignificant) probability that an election, at least at the state level, could be swung – but then we’d need to mobilize 1,000 others. From a rational decision-making framework, the argument is airtight: There is indeed something strangely spiritual in placing faith in your individual vote as symbolic of the votes of multitudes of others. Why vote when our political system has devolved into one governed by “one person, no vote,” as Carol Anderson has characterized so direly in her well-researched book?
It is my strong belief that this important conversation we are currently having about voter turnout remains incomplete without a radical reevaluation of the pervasive idea of “impact,” which has spread like wildfire across forward-thinking elite college campuses such as our own. Popularized by social do-gooders, effective altruists and the financial sector, the doctrine of impact encourages us to pursue with laser focus those projects in which we can harness our unique strengths to produce the most measurably positive change. Unfortunately, voting is diametrically opposed to this framework. By design, it is accessible to all citizens, educated or not, and the impact of each individual voter is low.
What the impact-centric decision-making calculus excludes from its purview are those decisions which should be made purely because they are right and required from us. Voting is one of these decisions. While there are a plethora of criticisms that can be made of the American government, most of them soberingly legitimate, there are very few on this campus who would venture to morally, politically, or philosophically dissent from the ideal of representative democracy. Those who genuinely hold these views and can defend them are entitled to their opinions. But those who do not consistently vote and yet in broad strokes believes in free and fair elections and political representation are eschewing a fundamental obligation. Our society is faltering in large part because we demand rights and entitlements while feeling no sense of duty towards a common project of self-rule. In many other countries in the world, civic participation entails several years of service in the military. And in our own past, it was understood that most young men would make the ultimate sacrifice if called upon by their country to do so. Today, most people (including myself) would be baffled if the government enlisted us for any cause that would disrupt our lives as totally as war. While war skepticism is worthwhile, the loss of the larger notion that we would make such concrete sacrifices for an abstract political ideal is regrettable for our democracy. There is little common ground I share with conservatives when it comes to the protection of voting rights, but their insight that voting is a privilege – no less, voting as an American – is keen and undeniable.
Admittedly, the problem is not confined to low voter turnout: Not voting has become synecdoche for indifference to our government writ large. Fewer and fewer young people prefer comparable public sector jobs to private ones, and more often than not, involvement in philanthropy is used to co-opt, rather than collaborate with, government. As Anand Giridharadas argues in “Winners Take All,” the private sector has adopted the language of social impact and change so effectively that millennials entering the job market see consulting and financial sector jobs as prerequisites to making “scalable” impact. To me, the most dangerous effect of this trend has not been that we have been “selling out” in droves, per se; it is that we have given up on a system designed to be “of the people, by the people and for the people” in favor of a blind belief in a private sector that will ultimately never be accountable to the same constituency. This issue is not trivial: The same inefficiencies in the public sector that are pointed to as reasons to work elsewhere are a cumulative result of decades of drainage of top talent, such as that produced at Stanford.
According to Antonia Hellman ‘21 and Christina Li ‘21, co-directors of Stanford Votes, voter registration numbers at Stanford are already higher than they have been in the past, likely in part a reflection of the work their organization has done to improve accessibility to voting. And apart from voter registration drives and awareness campaigns, everyone on campus is talking about the midterms – professors, community centers and campus publications are all taking turns offering their fresh takes on not only national events but the importance of civic participation. Activism for midterm turnout should not disband on Nov. 7, but instead rally newly formed coalitions and momentum to continue conversations about civic engagement and citizenship. Nancy Thomas, director of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts, said in an article in The New York Times, “On these campuses with high voting rates, they talk politics all the time.” Thomas continued, “Students say ‘I see myself as a voter.’” Thomas’ comment highlights the importance of aligning ourselves with an identity, a certain idea of ourselves, when we vote. Therefore, an orientation towards “impact” doesn’t need to be extirpated for us to vote. We just need to recognize its limitations: Namely, that it will never encompass true moral obligations, and cannot account for the force of “collective action.”
If we succeed in sustaining a conversation around citizenship in the modern age, we might more critically examine the very ethics of how we lead our lives, which is the most important debate that can be fostered during our undergraduate years.
Contact Jasmine Liu at jliu98 ‘at’ stanford.edu.