Fighting Student Voter Apathy: Role Of Collegiate Activism

By Taylor Tomita

Whatever your take on the latest political happenings, one thing is nearly certain: the results shook the country to its very core. Many who were convinced a Donald Trump victory was impossible are expressing shock now that the “impossible” has happened. While the race was close, with President-Elect Trump winning the Electoral Votes in spite of losing the Popular Vote, it’s important to remember that, according to CNN, voter turnout at the recent election was at a 20-year-low. Only a quarter of Americans voted for either candidate, while almost half of all Americans didn’t vote at all. Interestingly, even though Millennials make up more and more of the electorate, fewer and fewer of them are voting. So why not? Why don’t people vote?

It’s pertinent to note that, according to Wikipedia, voter turnout has consistently been in the range of 49% to 57.1% for the last 38 years. Furthermore, voter turnout hasn’t been higher than 65.4% since 1908. Further statistics show that voter turnout is linked directly to educational attainment as well as economic standing. According to the general trends, the better educated you are and the more money you make, the more likely you are to turn out to vote.

The Well-Educated & The Dazed and Confused

Science News for Students claims that one of the four main reasons that people don’t vote centers around education. Barry Burden, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, notes that people without a college degree are less likely to seek out political information, as well as less likely to have friends who care about politics or talk about voting.

On top of that, politics are confusing–both intentionally and unintentionally. You can see it in the voter turnout rates since 1900. After the industrial revolution everything’s become much more complicated, and now that we have the internet and more technology connected to everything, it’s hard for the average citizen to understand how their choices will affect the state of the world, i.e. rise and fall of the stock market. In tech, for example, Google Alphabet (GOOG) and other leading innovators watched their stocks drop, while metal & mining, including coal stocks, flew threw the roof, indicating bad news for climate change advocates. Some say that the stakes for this election were for the fate of the planet–which is especially interesting, considering half of the people eligible to vote in it didn’t.

College Culture vs. Infectious Apathy

Perhaps college students and alumni understand the value of democratic participation more because those that belong to college societies, especially those who live the “on-campus experience,” get to experience their own forms of government. Fraternities, sororities, teams sports, on-campus clubs, student body government–all of these entities function as a result of its members’ political participation within the group. Perhaps those with higher education understand that the more involved you get, the higher chance that you will get what you want.

Whatever the reason, education is statistically the the best way to improve voter turnout–but we still haven’t teased out exactly why people decide not to vote. According to Zen College Life, the top two reasons are that “they think their vote won’t count” and that they’re “too busy”. This is corroborated by The Washington Post’s polls of reasons people didn’t vote in 2014, which lists “too busy” as the top reason (28% of respondents). Interestingly, the second reason in The Washington Post’s poll? “Not Interested”.

Forbes recently ran an article by David DiSalvo, where he claims “apathy” is the main culprit for such low voter turnout:

“Yes, some percentage couldn’t get off work or didn’t have a way to get to the polls and other understandable reasons. But even allowing for those reasons leaves us with an enormous number–tens of millions of people–who could have voted but didn’t. Figuring out why they stayed home leads to the psychological culprit of this drama that gets talked about a lot but is nevertheless almost always underestimated. You know its name—apathy—but perhaps not its understated power, and we’d all do well to understand it better before the next election rolls around.”

DiSalvo’s article is important because he claims that apathy is contagious, that “seeing apathy in others triggers and reinforces apathy in us.” If this is true, does it also mean that witnessing activism in others triggers and reinforces activism in us?

Combating Complacency

The answer to the above is “maybe”. If you look at the idea of corporate social responsibility, for example, and how popular it’s becoming, you see that more people do buy from companies that invest in environmental efforts, philanthropy, ethical labor practices, and volunteering. Think about Nike’s peppered past with labor issues, Nestle’s history with environmentalism, even HP recently–companies that exist to make profit at all costs simply will not survive anymore.

If you look at protests as well, it’s obvious that campuses are hotbeds for them, because these communities are so small that raising awareness in them can have a cumulative snowball effect. Yet, even on a much larger scale, you don’t have to look further than at the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011, which, beyond nebulous income-disparity sentiment and the spread of the “we are the 99%” slogans had no real aim and still spread like wildfire to cities across the U.S. The current spate of anti-Trump protests (and their counterparts) are evidence of this, however little or late they might be.

The point is that educated activism does indeed incite activism–and “educated” is the key word here. These protests are democratic displays of idea, and their participants need reminders that breaking the peace and unlawful action both derail the process (on both sides).

The overarching message is that while educated students are more likely to vote, their civic responsibility may not stop there. It’s not the job of college educated people to inform others of who they should vote for necessarily, but they are the best hope at informing people why they should vote, and inciting activism by acting themselves. The well-educated understand the importance of the vote. Perhaps, before the next election, some of this knowledge and understanding will have spread. I’ll end with a quote:

“Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves, and the only way they could do this is by not voting.”

-Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Taylor Tomita is an Idaho-based writer for who enjoys writing about the education and entrepreneurial worlds. When not writing, you can find Taylor playing in the band Stepbrothers. Find him on Twitter (@trvshlvrd_rr).


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