An Essay by Alli Andresen and Katie Coleman
Did you know that this year is an election year? Last fall, the University was ablaze with the political pulse surrounding the Virginia senatorial race and the Marriage Amendment proposal. Both publicly around Grounds and privately in casual conversation, students from all political persuasions debated the issues at stake. Students recognized the election as an opportunity not only to take action about issues they cared about, but also to make our mark on Virginia politics as a University community. The Marriage Amendment in particular sparked political passion in students, both to vote in the election and to raise awareness about the issues being debated. While the constitutional amendment was a hands-on way for students to express themselves, legislation about controversial issues takes place all the time in the General Assembly. But it begs the question: does the Assembly have to act in a way that strikes a particularly passionate chord in a college community before students will get involved?
The vote is our most fundamental way to participate in government, and yet countless Americans do not exercise it. Most shocking of all is how few college age students vote. According to the National Census Bureau, only 47 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds voted in the last presidential election, compared to 79 percent of citizens 65 and older. Our grandparents’ generation is exercising almost twice as much governmental control as ours, and yet it is our future that we are leaving them to decide. The lack of youth participation, however, is not due to a lack of voting power. According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning, 18 to 30-year-olds make up nearly a quarter of the eligible voter pool. Politicians pay attention to issues that are important to their constituencies. In order for them to recognize and take action about issues important to young people, we must vote in strong numbers and show that we make up a considerable percentage of the constituency. Our age group has huge power if we only take the time to educate ourselves about the issues and use it.
This year, hot topics in the Virginia General Assembly ranged from smoking in restaurants to the death penalty. Delegates debated immigration issues, including the matter of in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants at state universities. A proposal to repeal the new Marriage Amendment, House Joint Resolution 271, was introduced but defeated. Virginia gained a slew of sky-high “abuser fees” to accompany tickets for driving violations deemed reckless. The Assembly voted in HB 1778 to allow the ever-notorious photo-monitoring systems at traffic lights, which have Virginians feeling like they have stepped into a scene from Orwell’s 1984. What University student has not yet driven and experienced the effects, whether monetary or mental, of these acts? These and countless other issues are being debated in Virginia and University students are virtually oblivious to much of it, apart from the occasional gripe we have all made at some point or another. We may not be able to decide these issues directly like the Marriage Amendment, but we have the most basic power to influence local legislation: the power to vote.
Next year’s presidential election will be a huge opportunity for students to tell the rest of America what we want the future of our government to be. We have a chance to take action even before that, however: 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for election in November. The delegates elected will vote on the troubling issues Virginia faces today. Even students who do not live in Virginia can register to vote in Charlottesville while attending the University, a privilege students at other universities in Virginia do not necessarily enjoy.
This fall more than ever, members of the University community are coming together to make voting accessible for as many students as possible. The Voter Registration Coalition (VRC), a non-partisan, student-run initiative sponsored by the Center for Politics, includes diverse student groups such as Student Council, University Democrats, College Republicans, class councils, and many others. The Coalition strives toward the common goal of helping register as many University students as possible by distributing forms and information at the Newcomb and O-Hill dining halls. The VRC is aiming to register 2008 voters by the 2008 presidential election.
Students at the University are some of the brightest young people in the country and have tremendous power to sway legislation through voting. The Coalition aims to see the youth population grow into an even more influential force, and one that has an active, not passive, place in today’s politics. Do not be apathetic about what is going on around you-register to vote and know that you are doing your part to ensure that your voice is heard.