Last month, I attended a “first vote” rally at Oberlin College in Ohio, to galvanize young people to register to vote in the upcoming elections. As a 2020 candidate for U.S. senator from Delaware, the rallying cry of “stop the hate” resonated.
While we come from different backgrounds, we have a lot in common. We are students on campuses across the state, and the only way we can get in that door and cast that vote is by making the most effort to get registered. Oberlin College, for example, has seen a 4.9 percent drop in the number of first-time voters over the last five years.
What makes Ohio’s election so crucial is the fact that it is the number one swing state in the country, and yet, on average, no Delaware college student, student in the state or student at a Washington university shows up to vote. Four years ago, there were 10,100 fewer college students in Delaware than there were in 2014. This year, the number of Delaware college students voting will be 11,500. That is a 3.5 percent decline in just one election cycle. What is interesting is that the voting district for most of our campuses are neighborhoods within the town or city of Wilmington, Delaware. These voting districts contain about two-thirds of the voting population.
What is most unfortunate is that there is an abundant supply of people that have taken political activism a little too far. Not only do young people vote for candidates that may not reflect the views of their classmates or even the campus community, the same is true of political behavior within the schools themselves.
A recent campus study conducted at eight institutions in Delaware, which included some of our very, very large private colleges, also pointed to students voting in only four of the eight voting districts. Students consistently voted against their classmates to the point that results in some of those campuses will be tighter than expected. Also, the school leaders are getting a note from their students, which is not a very inspiring one.
We have a number of students who are not even aware that there are voting districts within the town, or not getting as much information in our high schools. Of course, our former Gov. Jack Markell, who was a strong advocate for college students, has recently received a letter, some five pages long, of questions that college students have about politics, most of which are geared toward Hillary Clinton. They couldn’t be any more desperate.
Yes, I have huge respect for students who educate themselves and do research and exercise their civic duty to vote. However, the most-educated people can be guilty of doing more harm than good, the type of careless information that feeds the public and that is more detrimental to community leaders such as myself or my peers who know that we can make a difference if we apply our knowledge in a different way. In the last few years, we’ve seen students go on campus tours to mark their calendars to “vote” the day after winter break, and then they tend to not show up until the following summer. We never encourage students to show up during school hours. And with the shrinking Democratic margin of 60,000 votes in 2014, we don’t necessarily want students voting outside a competitive presidential election.
“No One Votes If They Don’t Know How to Vote.” That is a truism that has been overlooked. There is research demonstrating that student participation in elections results in a $300 million investment in Ohio from direct federal dollars that would have gone to other states to expand mental-health services or to hire more teachers. No one votes if they don’t know how to vote. Students need to get involved and get registered to participate in Ohio.
One of the ways our campaign, a national, grassroots effort called College of America 2020, plans to create the largest turnout of college students in Ohio history is by partnering with college students to work in communities to facilitate civic engagement, starting at the local level. Last spring, we partnered with the Iowa State University Project on Civil Engagement to train Iowans on state campaigns and we found that college students who participate in the project are more likely to participate in other college campaigns.
This year, I’m hoping to see the same success story across the country.