Nov. 4 was clearly a special day on campus. Just steps from the Buntrock doors, sidewalk chalk asked, “Have you voted today?” Some students wandered around campus attempting to persuade their peers to cast ballots, and others proudly sported their “I voted” and “I voted absentee” stickers. It was midterm Election Day in America.
The College Democrats, a student political organization, had been working hard since the beginning of September to rally their peers to the polls on Nov. 4. They’ve been primarily focused on one standout issue: voter registration.
“We focused on getting students registered to vote and also on getting them to vote by mail with absentee ballots – an option that allows students the time to really research the candidates,” said Alyssa Berg ’15, the president of College Democrats.
Difficulties with registration, such as address complications and incorrect registration materials, contribute to low voter turnout rates for college students. According to a statistic by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement CIRCLE, over a quarter of college students reported that they did not register to vote because they did not know how or had missed the deadline. CIRCLE also reported that only 55 percent of college students were registered to vote before the 2010 midterms. Of that 55 percent, 87 percent showed up to the polls on Election Day, as opposed to only 59 percent of unregistered young voters.
“I think it’s all about ownership. Students today are too likely to see politics as an old person’s game – something for people their parents’ age, rather than something they are qualified to have an opinion on,” Berg said. “I also think young people today have a sense of futility about participation in the political process; they feel like their vote doesn’t matter and their voice is never heard.”
When it comes to voting, St. Olaf suffers from the same problems that occur across many college campuses. Politically-engaged students were visible on election day, but their enthusiasm was tempered by voter apathy. Some students feel that voting is, in some ways, a lost cause. It is very common among 18-24 year olds to have non-political interests and to see the government as doing more harm than good. Berg also addressed the low voter turnout among young people.
“When 18- to 25-year-olds turn out to vote in the lowest numbers of any age demographic, how can we expect the government to reflect our interests? If we don’t commit to making our voices heard, who will listen to us?” Berg said.
When asked about why she voted, Lily Bane ’17 said, “I think it’s one of the most essential parts of the democratic process. I mean, if we underutilize it, it makes it pretty much a moot point.”
Christian Conway ’18 voted for the first time on Tuesday, and he echoed Bane’s sentiment.
“I think it’s important for our government to work that as many people as possible participate in our elections,” said Conway. “I didn’t vote in Ohio because I thought that since I’m living here in Northfield for most of the year, I’m going to be more affected by Minnesota laws.”
Though many students did choose to cast absentee ballots, the process is not always an easy one and quite a few students were left discouraged. Students who wished to vote in their home states had difficulty applying for and receiving the absentee ballot.
“The way I understand it is that if I vote, I have to register as a resident of Minnesota, and I don’t want to do that because I’m not from Minnesota. I didn’t get around to filling out an absentee ballot,” said Emily Butka ’18, who hails from St. Louis.
Buntrock Commons is St. Olaf’s polling place. President David R. Anderson ’74 is the head election judge. He has been working as an election judge since 2002 and was assigned to St. Olaf in 2010. With four hours left before the polls closed, Anderson was optimistic about the student turnout.
“I think [voter turnout] is pretty good. We’re at 437 right now, which isn’t bad. I’d really like to see a bigger turnout, because I feel that midterm elections are just as important and presidential elections. The only difference in the ballot is one name on the ballot,” Anderson said.
Having Buntrock as a polling place is convenient, but it comes with its own complications. According to state law, “a person may not display campaign material, post signs, ask, solicit or in any manner try to induce or persuade a voter within a polling place or within 100 feet of the building in which a polling place is situated.” Students in the Political Awareness Committee are assigned to monitor Buntrock to enforce the regulations. Anderson said that St. Olaf doesn’t often run into any problems.
By the end of Election Day, around 730 students had cast ballots in Buntrock. Many students then congregated in the Pause, watching CNN broadcast the election results. The night ended with victories for Senator Al Franken D, Governor Mark Dayton D and Representative John Kline R.
Photo Credit: BECCA REMPEL/MANITOU MESSENGER