As Pennsylvania primary approaches, F&M Votes promotes civic engagement

Ellie Gavin || Campus Life Editor 

With the Pennsylvania primaries quickly approaching and an important presidential election underway, F&M Votes has been working hard to promote voter registration and education on campus.F&M Votes is a nonpartisan group on campus that encourages voter registration, education, and motivation. Professor Van Gosse, chair of the history department, founded F&M Votes in 2004 because he thought nationwide there was extremely low turnout among student voters, even during a time of national crisis and polarization.

“It seemed like a big hole that needed filling, and we could do something concrete at one college at least,” Gosse said.

Gosse runs the organization along with student co-chair Emma Collins ’16 and faculty co-chair and F&M alumna Nicole Hoover, who joined F&M votes as a student in 2006. The group works to maximize voter registration and voter turnout, offers opportunities throughout the year for students to complete necessary voter registration paperwork, publicizes voter registration on social media, and encourages people to become informed about national and local politics.

According to Gosse, many students and faculty were interested in volunteering for and being involved with the organization when it was founded. However, that interest has since dwindled.

“When I was a student here, we had vibrant student participation in F&M Votes, the College Republicans, and the College Democrats. Literally dozens of students participated in those groups in any given year,” Hoover said.  “I can’t speak for the [other groups], but F&M Votes certainly doesn’t have that student base anymore.”

Gosse described the political culture at F&M as “intermittent, up and down, sometimes disengaged, periodically mobilized,” and suggested that engagement seems to fluctuate from moderate interest to general apathy.

“Sometimes it’s positive and exciting— in presidential election years,” Gosse said. “Sometimes it’s dispiriting, when a significant number of students express their lack of interest in even registering to vote. As if we’re religious proselytizers to be avoided.”

Gosse mentions that he did notice a relative increase in political activism on campus from 2004 to 2008, in response to the controversies regarding President Bush and the Iraq War and the excitement of the Obama campaign.

“Since then it’s been up and down, not so intense,” Gosse said.

Collins says that declining interest in politics in general presents a challenge for the organization.

“One of the biggest challenges is ensuring that students understand why, regardless of who or what they vote for, voting is a civic responsibility that we should take seriously and not something that we can just take part in during presidential elections,” Collins said. “Millennials now outnumber baby boomers, and yet we consistently have the worst voter turnout.”

While Hoover admits that this phenomenon is complex, she suggests that, among other things, it may indicate a general feeling of discouragement among young voters.

“I also believe that many people find the process just downright daunting and abrasive. Without knowing just exactly how they are individually affected by politics at every level, this age group seems to find it much easier to simply check-out,” Hoover said. “I’ve heard many students express frustration with the current system and simply state, ‘What I think doesn’t matter anyway.’ While I couldn’t disagree more, I empathize with that statement and how it’s derived.”

The problem of low voter turnout among young adults is not unique to F&M’s campus. The youth vote has been historically underrepresented in elections, especially in midterm election years. According to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, about 45 percent of 18 to 29 year olds voted in the 2012 elections, and only  20 percent in the 2014 midterm elections.

“In terms of political knowledge and apathy, I believe our campus is fairly representative of campuses across the country. But that being said, I don’t think our students know or care enough. Past big-ticket issues [such as] abortion, gay rights, privacy, etc., most students check-out of the political process,” Hoover says.  “And don’t even get me started on local politics. It is one of F&M Votes lofty goals to educate the student body about the particular ballot in its entirety. We’d like to see more students express interest in political issues that don’t make the national headlines. After all, that’s really where the magic happens.”

According to Hoover, F&M Votes as an organization feels the impact of this lack of interest very strongly.

“While we see student participation in our group flourish during presidential years, we are often scrambling for a single student volunteer the year after,” Hoover said. “And when the students on campus don’t see other students taking a stand and making a case for this very important work, it’s hard to establish credibility on campus.”

Collins expressed a similar sentiment.

“In my experience, it appears to be the same groups of people that make the effort to be well-informed and active in politics.” 

But she expressed some hope that the upcoming election will inspire more political participation among students.

“With all the publicity surrounding this year’s election I would be surprised if that wasn’t changing a bit,” Collins said.

Despite the difficulties the organization faces, Hoover continues to believe in F&M Vote’s message.

“This is real life, folks,” Hoover said. “Engagement with the issues, while cumbersome at times, is the only way to enact real change. And voting, I would argue informed voting, sits at the core of our American republic. I don’t think it should be a question of if we will vote or if we will get involved in some civic way; it should be a question of how we will do so.”

Sophomore Ellie Gavin is the Campus Life Editor. Her email is fgavin@fandm.edu.

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