Voter awareness important for college students

By Tom Ballard
Staff Writer 

Outside the border of Metzger Drive, the country is engulfed in a controversial and widely followed presidential election between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump, with other more local elections also garnering media attention. However, inside the College, there is little talk or signs of the encroaching election.

“Right now, political awareness and activism is low among the general student body,” said Dillon McNamara, vice president of College Democrats and a junior political science major.

Ryan Jones, president of College Republicans and a senior political science and Spanish double major, echoed the low political morale at the College.

“The political climate on campus is not as widespread as it should be for young adults our age, seeing as we are affected by nearly all of the campaign issues in presidential elections,” Jones said. “Attendance at College Republicans events is typically good, but could be better.”

According to Michael Norquist, interim executive director of the Center for Community Engaged Learning (CCEL) and an adjunct political science professor, many students might not feel inclined to be involved politically because of their backgrounds.

“All things considered, in comparison with other college campuses, I think (the College is a fairly politically) inactive campus,” Norquist said. “I don’t think there’s lots of political engagement or activism on campus, which comes as a surprise sometimes to me.”

Norquist also said that the geographical demographics of the College most likely have much to do with the student body’s disconnect from politics.

According to Norquist, approximately 95 percent of the College’s student body comes from New Jersey. Being so close to home and coming from many of the same environments as their peers, Norquist said that it could be a factor in why there is low political engagement at the College.

“I (also) think the student body is… not politically engaged, (since) most (students come from communities where they) don’t have to think about this stuff, and then you also don’t necessarily have the academic or student organization culture (on campus that serves) as edgy groups, in a sense,” Norquist said.

Norquist said that the traditional programs at the College are not typically seen as the unconventional or edgy — radical — programs that typically spawn political activism on college campuses. He said that while the College has strength in programs, such as nursing, education, engineering and business, the College lacks a prioritization of social conscientiousness and political engagement in the academic sphere.

“We have a very strong (women’s and gender studies) program sociology and political science are strong, as well. (However), they are geared, in many ways, toward creative preparation rather than creating radical activists, for the lack of a better phrase,” Norquist said.

Jones said that students might not be participating in the College’s political organizations because they feel uneasy declaring allegiance to a political party.

“Often, students are apprehensive about declaring themselves as one party or another by attending events by either partisan organizations on campus, but we truly welcome politically interested students to our events or meetings,” Jones said.

While candidates try to reach out to younger voters, McNamara said that some voters, particularly the young ones, are not pleased with the current political system.

“I think that the political climate is low due to a feeling of apathy by many college students toward our current political system,” McNamara said. “I think we need to do a better job of connecting current political issues to the personal lives of students, especially on relevant issues like college affordability and student debt.”

Jennifer Loughran, a junior political science major and Bonner Scholar who is working on ways to improve political engagement at the College, said that students typically do not have the time to be engaged in politics.

“Many college students want to be informed about politics and who the leaders in office are, but sometimes, they just do not prioritize it (or) find the time to do so,” Loughran said.

In order to increase the political awareness and involvement on campus, several actions have been taken by various groups on campus.

Last semester, Student Government (SG) granted recognition to the TCNJ Political Union, a non-partisan group on campus seeking to get more students involved with politics, according to SG’s Director Sam Fogelgaren, a senior history and urban studies double major and former president of College Democrats.

“I was talking to a few other student leaders that were active in political engagement efforts (and we discovered) that the problem at TCNJ is not (that the students lack) the will or the interest (in politics), but that there really wasn’t a mechanism for students and student groups and the administration to collaborate (and) know what was going on,” Fogelgaren said. “So a bunch of us agreed to start a new organization that was committed, not necessarily to actively doing anything… but we were going to be facilitating better dialogue amongst student groups.”

According to Fogelgaren, students at the College typically show up to vote in elections on average with college students across the country. He said the problem was that the College lacked effective political programming on campus.

“We felt that the people who were getting involved (in politics at the College) were pretty much history and political science students and political junkies,” Fogelgaren said.”(But) TCNJ students — really from all different backgrounds, all majors, all areas of interests — all have an interest in politics… Our voting rate in presidential elections is on par with the national average, but (the problems with politics at the College) seems to come from the programming, the opportunities on campus, not so much the fact that there’s not interest.”

Fogelgaren, along with several other students and staff members at the College, including Norquist, are also part of the TCNJ Votes! initiative, a newly formed coalition that seeks to increase voter registration and voter turnout in each upcoming election. According to its website, the coalition also plans to increase participation and interest in political engagement activities on and off campus.

Norquist said that the idea for the initial steps toward the creation of the project started within the past two years by Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Elizabeth Bapasola and the late Executive Director of CCEL Pat Donohue. According to Norquist, the idea was to think about possible ways to increase political engagement around campus, which led to the creation of the Political Engagement Collaborative (PEC), a group of College faculty, staff and students that aims “to help promote college students’ engagement in the democratic process,” according to the group’s page on Lion’s Gate.

The initial goal of the organization was to increase political engagement within student life and academic departments. But since then, Norquist said the group has honed its goals to focus specifically on voter registration, voter turnout and political education on campus. The TCNJ Votes! initiative serves as just one of the projects of the PEC.

According to the TCNJ Votes! website, less than half of the College’s students voted in the 2012 elections, the last year there was a presidential election in the U.S. The site goes on to read that only 10 percent of students voted in the 2014 general elections, which had every seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and a seat in the U.S. Senate on the ballot.

Fogelgaren said the Political Union, which works with groups like the College Democrats, College Republicans, Black Student Union, Voices for Planned Parenthood and SG, will work together in order to maximize the effectiveness of political programing on campus. Fogelgaren said that in the past, organizations might have planned multiple debate watches on the same night, which resulted in smaller viewings and less political discussion within the community.

Now, Fogelgaren said that the campus organizations will work together in order to ensure that there is only one debate screening per debate on campus in hopes that it can increase attendance and foster more political discussion amongst students.

Another initiative to increase political discourse is Politics Week. From Monday, Sept. 26, through Friday, Sept. 30, the TCNJ Votes! coalition will host several political related events and push for more students to become registered voters, according to Fogelgaren and Norquist. The project will also host a series of bi-weekly open meetings every other Friday, which started on Friday, Sept. 9, with the goal of discussing ways to enhance political discussion on campus.

The initiative has also secured a $3,000 mini-grant from the Office of Student Engagement, according to Fogelgaren and Norquist. That grant will go toward a two-year subscription to TurboVote, an online application that aims to make it easier for people, particularly college students, to register and request absentee and mail-in ballots, according to the application’s website.

Loughran said that her main efforts to increase political awareness on the campus are centered around voter registration and voter turnout to elections. She also hopes the political events being brought to campus in the future will draw large crowds.

“Presidential elections appeal to the majority of the population more than any other election. This election in particular will either draw drastically more voters or drastically less voters,” Loughran said. “For TCNJ, I am hoping for an increase in voter turnout from four years ago (the last presidential election), which was 49 percent.”

Fogelgaren said that it is important for students to be engaged and vote in elections in order to have a stay in their government.

“If you don’t vote, other people’s votes count more,” Fogelgaren said. “If you’re not voting because you think that you’re protesting, that’s a bad protest… apathy is a bad form of protest. Voting is something that you do five minutes a day, one day of the year, and I believe that if we’re going to be a successful society, people need to take every day of the year to pay attention and be aware and decide what they believe and advocate for those beliefs.”

Norquist said that students at the College should vote not only because most young people from 18 to 29 years old decide not to, but also because young voters have the potential to sway elections, especially in local races, as they make up about 21 percent of the population.

“If you could mobilize the five thousand students that live in Ewing, (N.J.) have them registered here and have them vote in local elections, they could easily (decide) a local election,” Nordquist said. “If all TCNJ students lived here and were registered to vote here, that’s already one-seventh of the vote and they can easily swing an election, one way or the other.”

Members of the College’s partisan political organizations also stressed the importance for more awareness at the College.

“We need focus on political issues that are relevant to college students,” McNamara said. “We also need to disseminate information on candidates and their platforms in order to increase the political knowledge of our student body… Informed voters tend to be more invested in elections, and they are more likely to go out and vote.”

Jones said that there are many things that College students can do to get involved.

“(By) simply registering to vote is an easy step toward participating in politics, or even discussing the issues with friends in a setting, such as (a) televised debate watch on campus,” Jones said. “There are so many ways to get politically aware and many organizations on campus are coming together to help facilitate that through collaborative efforts.”

For more information students can visit vote.pages.tcnj.edu. The general election this year will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 8.