By Sarah Myers
Just for a moment, let’s remember 2016, and one of the my favorite quotes of all time: Hillary Clinton, at a July 2016 rally in northern Virginia, donning a brightly colored knit blazer, telling you to “Pokémon Go to the polls.” Clinton’s delivery was key here — she delivered this line with the anger of a parent telling her child to go to bed, and the hesitance of someone who has never played or discussed Pokémon Go.
There is, however, a larger issue with this quote: American’s persistent reluctance to actually vote. Only 6 in 10 Americans voted in the 2016 presidential election, and 4 in 10 voted in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections. There are a lot of potential explanations; some people don’t vote because they haven’t been able to register to vote. Others have been purged from voter rolls (if you want to get very angry very quickly, look up Georgia’s last minute voter suppression efforts, which included putting 53,000 registrations on hold, a policy initiated by the Republican candidate for governor in this year’s race). Some people have work or other obligations which prevent them from going to the polls. Some people feel uninformed about how to register to vote, how to vote, who to vote for or why their vote matters. Young people are likely to move around the country and therefore feel disconnected from local politics. Campaigns are likely to focus on people who habitually vote, creating a cycle in which voters are targeted by information urging them to vote and therefore do so, while non-voters do not receive that information and continue to not vote.
Of course, as with so many things in America, education and economics also matter. People with higher levels of education or higher earnings are more likely to vote. Despite high education levels, Stanford students are part of the problem; fewer than one in five eligible voters among Stanford students actually voted in the 2014 midterm elections. This year, student groups have mobilized to change that. Stanford in Government has held voter registration events (including a registration event featuring free tacos last spring) and left flyers and “Stanford Votes” badges all over campus.
These efforts probably will increase turnout, which is great. In general, participating in democracy is a good thing. But there’s also room for concern. Stanford students’ chances of voting decrease as the distance from Stanford to their home state increases. Maybe those students are realizing that they no longer live in their home state for most of the year and therefore aren’t really affected by its policies.
For instance, I’m from Pennsylvania, but in the past 12 months I’ve probably spent two months or less actually in Pennsylvania. I still voted in this year’s midterm election using an absentee ballot, but I’m not sure that doing so is fair — to me or anyone else. On some level, I am more currently connected to California than I am to Pennsylvania, and I may remain so for as long as I spend the majority of my time here. Is it fair to me that I am expected (or, depending on your home state and the state in which you go to college, required) to vote in local elections for my home state, while living in a state without representation? Is it fair to people living full time in Pennsylvania that I have a say in the policies that will not affect me personally?
Here’s an example: California, unlike Pennsylvania, has propositions on the ballot. This year, voters in Palo Alto will decide whether to enact Proposition F, which would make the city responsible for regulating health care costs. This proposition could save consumers money, but it might also drive every healthcare provider out of Palo Alto. Now that I live in Palo Alto, I rely on health care providers in Palo Alto. Yet I can’t vote on a proposal which may completely reshape healthcare in this area.
While we’re asking about fairness, is it fair that Stanford students, who are extremely likely to become habitual voters after they graduate, are being spoon-fed voter registration forms and reminders? Don’t get me wrong, we all should be voting, and it’s ridiculous that we don’t. But Stanford could also focus more on registering R&DE employees or recent immigrants to the U.S. who live in the Bay Area or any number of less advantaged groups who are less likely to vote. Instead we are focusing on the people who are most likely to have the resources and time to figure this out for themselves. Maybe it’s time to reevaluate how college students vote and how college groups promote voting.
Contact Sarah Myers at smyers3 ‘at’ stanford.edu.